Tesla has one of the most advanced self-driving cars on the market that’s included with every new car sold and can be activated through software updates. Tesla sells two offerings related to self-driving, one called Autopilot and another one called “Full Self-Driving” which contains more advanced autonomous features. Even so, both of these options still require a human driver to be attentive on public streets, analogous to Level 2 driving (what do Levels mean?) but making overall everyday freeway and stop-and-go traffic much a safer and enjoyable experience.
If you’re considering a Tesla and simply trying to decide whether the Full Self-Driving package is worth $7,000, you’ll also want to check out our Autopilot vs Full Self-Driving: Is it Worth it? article for a quick read.
Continuous Advances via Software Upgrades
Tesla has already disrupted the traditional automaker model by including all the hardware necessary for self-driving as part of every vehicle sold. Tesla owners who wish to “upgrade” to self-driving can do so “over-the-air” as part of a software update. These over-the-air software updates are partly what makes Tesla so unique as an auto manufacturer, in many ways similar to the way phone manufacturers upgrade their phone software, continuously over time, so customers always have the latest software for their phone.
Take a glimpse of what’s coming in the future.
Tesla vs Other Auto Manufacturers
While Tesla has enjoyed a headstart in the market and arguably employs the most sophisticated hardware of any consumer-grade vehicle currently, other car manufacturers are slowly catching up. Most notably are those car manufacturers who employ the Mobileye system. This was the same system Tesla originally utilized in Autopilot Hardware 1 (AP1) until 2016 when Tesla decided to build its own system. Manufacturers using the Mobileye EyeQ 3 (as used in AP1), include GM with Super Cruise, Nissan / Infinity with ProPilot and Volvo with Pilot Assist. GM’s Super Cruise is considered the closest to Tesla currently, but can only be used on certain, highly mapped roads. See our Cars with Autopilot article for more.
In 2019, Mobileye released their EyeQ 4 system to manufacturers which will be much closer to what Tesla offers. For example, a fully-optioned 2019 BMW X5 is one of the first non-Tesla vehicles to offer automatic lane changes besides Mercedes. That said, no other manufacturer has been as aggressive in pursuing self-driving technology as Tesla and building powerful hardware into every car, creating legions of fans eagerly anticipating each new software release.
So what can you expect if you purchase a Tesla today? Read on as we break down all the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features.
We’ll start with the hardware first. Here’s where Tesla has a big advantage over other auto manufacturers. All new Teslas sold today have the necessary hardware required to eventually drive themselves, according to CEO Elon Musk (and he’ll upgrade it, if not). The Tesla Autopilot driving system relies primarily on cameras (vs. Lidar – see article), ultrasonic sensors and forward-facing radar to navigate the roads, a setup which Elon Musk believes is more practical for consumer cars than the more expensive and bulky Lidar setups used in many other autonomous cars being tested.
The Tesla Autopilot system employs 8 cameras that provide a 360 view for the system around the car, plus a front-facing radar to help see through rain, fog and snow, in addition to long-range ultrasonic sensors (e.g. parking sensors). In addition, Teslas come loaded with powerful computing hardware from manufacturers like NVIDIA, that allow the vehicles to process the enormous amounts of data using AI, neural nets, and machine learning to react to conditions in real-time.
Autopilot 2.0 (AP2) Hardware vs. Autopilot 1.0 (AP1)
The current hardware suite seen on Tesla’s today wasn’t always the case. Advanced features of “Enhanced Autopilot” and the future “Full Self-Driving” capabilities for Tesla vehicles is only available for those vehicles manufactured with Autopilot 2.0 (AP2) hardware, beginning in Q4 of 2016. How can you tell if a vehicle is Tesla Autopilot 2? The easiest is whether is has cameras mounted on the side of the vehicle, embedded in the side blinkers (#5 in the diagram above).
Autopilot 2.0 Hardware Visual Giveaway:
The original Autopilot 1.0 (AP1) hardware (see AP1 vs AP2) included in early Tesla models starting in Q4 2014 (no side cameras in the front fender signal) was provided by a third-party supplier called Mobileye. While it was a very capable system, Tesla decided to part ways with Mobileye in Autopilot 2.0 in order to more rapidly advance full self-driving capabilities. That means that certain features, such as Navigate on Autopilot in the Version 9 software release, aren’t available for AP1 vehicles and future self-driving features also likely won’t rollout out to older AP1 cars.
Autopilot vs. Full Self-Driving
Tesla has two tiers of autonomous driving – Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving” (FSD). Tesla previously offered a different tier called “Enhanced Autopilot”, but that has since been discontinued (see Autopilot vs Enhanced Autopilot for more). Tesla Autopilot is standard now and is essentially an advanced cruise-control plus automatic steering system while Full Self-Driving contains more autonomous driving-like features like automatic lane changes, Navigate-on-Autopilot, Summon and Autopark.
- Autopilot – offers full stop-and-go adaptive cruise control with automatic steering. It’s included with all vehicles.
- Full Self-Driving (FSD) – offers automated lane changes and advanced autonomous driving features such as Navigate-on-Autopilot (freeway on-ramp to off-ramp), Smart Summon and Autopark. It’s a $7,000 option, as of this writing.
In this article, we’ll be reviewing the currently available features of both Autopilot and Full Self-Driving. However, you can get a glimpse of the future by watching the Tesla Autonomy Day video where they review what’s coming down the road.
That said, these features require driver attentiveness and are Level 2 in nature (see what do Levels mean?). Not paying attention with autonomous cars can result in accidents, but even so, the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) praised the Autopilot software with helping mitigate crashes overall. With the release of Navigate on Autopilot in the Version 9 software update in Q4 of 2018, Tesla vehicles are starting to get some new features that are more autonomous in nature, like the ability to automatically drive and navigate from freeway on-ramp to exit.
Any Standard Safety Features?
What is included outside of Tesla Autopilot or Full Self-Driving Options? Your Tesla comes default with standard active safety features which include automated safety systems as outlined below, including Lane Assist, Lane Departure Avoidance, Collision Avoidance Assist and Speed Assist. You can always purchase more advanced features included in Full Self-Driving later, albeit for a higher price.
Autonomous vehicles are generally classified into “Levels” (what do Levels mean?). The current Autopilot feature Tesla currently provides on its vehicles is Level 2 autonomy – partial automation where the driver must still be attentive and be able to take over at any moment.
The key features of Autopilot include:
- Automated Cruise Control (ACC or TACC)
- Automated Steering (Level 2), combined with ACC above
- Ability to work in stop-and-go traffic
Cruise Control with Distance Following
Like many car manufacturers offer today, Tesla allows you to set the cruise control to a certain speed and have the car automatically slow down as vehicles in front of you decrease their speed. This is typically referred to as Automatic Cruise Control (ACC) or Dynamic Cruise Control, but Tesla calls it Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC). Once activated and you’ve set your speed, you have the ability to adjust the following distance and the TACC will slow down all the way to stop, depending on traffic, and then automatically resume without any driver intervention. This is works in both highway and city traffic and does wonders for reducing the stress and cognitive load on the driver that comes with busy traffic environments (in addition to reducing the risk of accidents and rear-end collisions).
How to Use It:
- Model 3 – Push down once on the gear lever while in Drive mode. Use the Touchscreen to adjust follow distance. Note that pushing down once on the gear lever just initiates distance cruise control (TACC), but not Autosteer. Pushing down twice will enact both TACC and Autosteer (see below).
- Model S and X – Pull back once on the cruise control lever on the left side of the steering wheel. Adjust the desired speed by moving the cruise control lever up or down and releasing. To change the following distance, rotate the cruise control lever.
Limitations: Works from 18 to 90mph in generally clear visibility and straight roads. Note that when TACC is active over 50 MPH, Automatic Emergency Braking for stationary objects is limited (to avoid false positives / sudden braking on the freeway, which could cause accidents). That means you must pay attention at all times when driving at freeway speeds. From the Owner’s Manual:
“Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) and a vehicle you are following moves out of your driving path and a stationary vehicle or object is in front of you instead.”
Compared to Others: The Tesla Traffic-Aware Cruise Control system compares very favorably to other ACC implementations in that it works in a wide variety of conditions and handles stop-and-go traffic very well. By comparison, Volvo requires driver intervention if the car has been stopped for too long.
Autosteer (with Cruise Control)
The Autosteer capability works in conjunction with the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC) and will keep the vehicle centered in the lane. It works under multiple conditions, both on the highway and in city driving as long as the vehicle can accurately detect the lanes and/or road boundaries. In essence, it steers itself – within limits. It can’t handle sharp turns on winding roads and requires you keep your hands on the steering wheel and will disengage the system if you don’t.
By using Autosteer in conjunction with TACC, you are effectively driving at autonomous Level 2.
How to Use It: Before you can use Autosteer, you must turn it on in Settings. Once you’re driving and the vehicle has detected the lanes and feels confident enough that it can safely enable Autosteer, it will display a grey steering wheel icon. Once you engage Autopilot the steering wheel turns blue (as shown in the above image, upper left).
- Tesla Model 3 – push down the gear lever twice to enable. You will hear a positive tone, letting you know it’s active.
- Tesla Model S or X – Pull the cruise control lever towards you twice.
- Highways and freeways – Autosteer should only be used on active highways and freeways with no cross traffic. Autosteer will not respond to stoplights or stop signs and while it can be used in city traffic, it is dangerous as the driver may become complacent and inadvertently drive through stoplights and stop signs.
- Hands-on – Hands must be on the steering wheel. If hands are off the steering wheel for an certain period of time (under a minute), the car will warn you to put your hands back on the wheel. If you do not, it will stop the car and no longer allow the use of Autosteer until the next trip.
- Speed restrictions – in situations where the speed limit cannot be detected, Autosteer is limited to 45mph. Where the speed limit is detected, the maximum speed is set to +5mph above the speed limit.
Compared to Others: Because Tesla uses its own powerful camera AI system, it’s able to handle a greater variety of roads and conditions than most other manufacturers systems. The closest competitor is GM’s Super Cruise, but it’s limited to roads where GM has done extensive mapping ahead of time. Other systems such as Nissan’s ProPilot and Volvo’s Pilot Assist aren’t nearly as good as Tesla (or GM) in keeping centered within lanes. BMW released a slightly better version with the 2019 X5, but again, fairly rudimentary.
Full Self-Driving Capabilities
The most exciting capabilities offered by Tesla include the Full Self-Driving (FSD) suite of features. While it’s a bit of a misnomer and not fully autonomous yet, like a Level 4 or 5 vehicle might be, it is getting close every day and Tesla continues to be the most aggressive auto manufacturer to offer these capabilities.
Outlined below are the features currently offered with FSD:
Assisted Auto Lane Change
Here’s a feature that few other car manufacturer currently offer to general consumers – the ability to automatically and safely change (one) lane while in ACC+Auto-Steering mode. This makes it convenient to change lanes to avoid slower traffic, when required, without having to disengage Autopilot and then re-engage it. It works, but on rare occasions, it can quickly abort and go back into the original lane which can be somewhat unnerving, so it’s best to only use this function once you have thoroughly checked your surroundings and have your hands on the wheel during the maneuver.
How to Use It: First, enable Auto Lane Change in Settings. Then, with Autosteer active, simply apply the turn signal to the desired direction and the vehicle will change lanes when it’s safe to do so. Once the lane change has completed, turn off the turn signal (there’s no need to do this on the Tesla Model 3). You may cancel Auto Lane Change by manually steering, applying the brake or canceling the turn signal (Model S and X).
Limitations: It only changes one lane at a time, the adjacent lane must be clear of obstacles and the vehicle must detect the outside of the target lane halfway through the lane change or it will cancel the maneuver.
Compared to Others: Only certain BMWs and high-end Mercedes something similar.
Navigate on Autopilot
Navigate on Autopilot is arguably the most exciting Autopilot feature released in years and provides a glimpse of what autonomous driving is capable of. Navigate on Autopilot is a freeway-only function, allowing the vehicle to navigate itself autonomously towards a destination from a freeway on-ramp to exit, changing lanes and switching freeways as required. It will also automatically changes lanes to avoid slow traffic, as needed. This system effectively combines Traffic Aware Cruise Control (TACC), Autosteer and Auto Lane Change capabilities to provide an almost fully automated driving solution.
How to Use It: To use Navigate on Autopilot you must enable it in Settings, under Autopilot. When you’re ready to use it, enter your destination into the navigation system. If the route uses freeways, then you’ll see a “Navigate on Autopilot” button in the navigation system, press it to activate it. You can also set it to automatically activate for destinations that use compatible roads and opt to forgo lane change confirmations and more.
Once on the freeway, enable Autosteer (see above) and you’re all set. The system will show on the screen a suggested lane change on the screen (for either a faster lane or for lane changes required to make the destination) and will also provide an audible prompt if the lane change is required for the destination. If you’ve set it to automatically change lanes without confirmation, it will do so, although you can have it notify you of upcoming lane changes with an audible alert as well.
It will also automatically exit the freeway (by turning on the blinker and changing lanes), if the exit is directly off the freeway. In addition, it will come to a stop at the first intersection from the off-ramp.
Limitations: Navigate on Autopilot only works with current vehicles (AP2 or greater hardware), on freeways and requires that the driver’s hands are on the steering wheel if lane confirmations are turned off in settings.
Compared to Others: No other system currently has something this advanced on the road for consumers today and it’s really an early glimpse of future autonomous driving.
One of the most challenging and stressful aspects of everyday driving can be parking, especially parallel parking. More and more car manufacturers are now offering assisted parking technology for both in parallel and perpendicular spots. One advantage electric vehicles have in this area over traditional cars is that electric vehicles can fully drive the car into the spot, automatically switching between forward and reverse and applying the brakes. Transitional gas-powered vehicles with transmissions, such as the Volvo XC90 will automatically steer the car, but require the user to apply the gas and brake – potentially causing issues if the driver is paying attention to the parking guidance system.
How to Use: Drive slowly by potential spaces. If the car detects a suitable space a parking icon will display on the screen. Remove hands from the steering wheel and put the car into reverse. Press “Start Autopark” on the screen.
Limitations: Autopark requires cars parked on each side of the space to operate.
Compared to Others: Tesla’s system is generally very good and can handle both parallel and perpendicular spots. However, it requires there be cars in the adjacent spaces in order to detect the parking spot. In contrast, Nissan’s new ProPilot system doesn’t require cars be in adjacent spots and also provides a useful top-down 360 view of the surrounding area to better visualize the surrounding environment.
Summon and ‘Smart Summon’
One of the most interesting self-driving features provided by Tesla is the Summon feature. It allows you to “summon” your Tesla from a garage remotely, for example to a clear space where passengers and cargo can easily be loaded or unloaded. This is very helpful in situations where the car is parked in a tight space, making entry and exit difficult (like apartment spots or tight garage spots). In addition, it can automatically open and close garage doors!
In addition, Tesla has released “Smart Summon”, a beta feature allows a vehicle to automatically navigate to you on private property, such as parking lots.
How to Use: For normal Summon (not Smart Summon), enable the Summon feature in Settings, then Customize to adjust details such as Side Clearance, auto HomeLink, etc. Then position the vehicle for parking so it only has to move in forward or reverse. Finally, operate Summon by either using the Tesla App or the car key.
For the Smart Summon beta feature, click Summon and then the Smart Summon icon. You must be within 200 feet of the car and should be able to see it at all times. Hold down Go To Target button to begin and release at any time to stop.
Limitations: Normal Summon only drives forward and reverse in a straight line and will not work with raised edges higher than one inch. Smart Summon is available to those who have purchased Full Self-Driving Capability or Enhanced Autopilot and only works within line-of-sight.
Compared to Others: Other manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes have a similar feature to the basic Summon in their higher end models, but no manufacturer has anything like Smart Summon.
Future Full Self-Driving Capabilities
Tesla has provided a glimpse of what’s to come for Full Self-Driving in 2020:
- Ability to recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs (currently warning only)
- Ability to navigate city streets
What exactly these mean still remains to be seen since they are not fully released, but with the powerful Hardware 3 now available as part of new Tesla vehicles, we have no doubt there are more exciting autonomous features on the horizon, pending regulatory approval.
See near-term Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features coming soon and the fantastic Tesla Autonomy Day video for more.
Standard Automated Safety Features
In addition to true autonomous and self-driving features, Tesla includes many intelligent safety systems as standard equipment designed to help support the driver.
Lane Assist (LA, aka LKA)
Lane Assist, commonly known as Lane Keeping Assist (LKA), helps ensure you stay in your lane and don’t accidentally drift or drive into adjacent lanes or vehicles. It acts a bit like a Blind Spot Warning (BSW) system in that it will alert you visually (via the instrument cluster on the Model X and S) if there are cars or objects next to the car.
We found LKA to be far better than others. With other systems, if you are too close to a lane marker they often trigger false alerts by shaking the wheel. However, with Tesla’s version, it seems to only shake the wheel when it realizes you’ve erroneously drifted too far (perhaps by using the neural network technology). Because of that, it’s the only LKA system I’d actually keep on at all times.
It has the following features:
- Visual warning on the X and S instrument cluster
- Steering wheel vibration when drifting from the lane
- Steering intervention if drifting into an adjacent lane
- Lane Departure Avoidance to actively bring you back into the lane
How to Use: Automatically engaged. However, certain features can be controlled in Autopilot settings, such as steering wheel vibration and Land Departure Avoidance (Lane Departure Emergency Avoidance is turned on each time automatically).
Limitations: Generally 25 to 90 mph on highways with clear markings
Compared to Others: Generally good compared to others, however, systems like those on Volvo more clearly alert the driver directly on the side rearview mirrors (something found on many other cars but missing from Tesla vehicles, unfortunately).
Collision Avoidance Assist (CAA)
Collision Avoidance Assist (CAA) is composed of two systems designed to avoid frontal collisions:
- Frontal Collision Warning – an audible and visual (in Model X and S instrument clusters) warning if the system detects an imminent collision
- Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) – as is standard on many cars today, Tesla includes AEB to avoid accidents if it feels a collision is unavoidable if no action is taken. It will automatically apply the brakes and continue to apply them until the car has stopped, the threat is gone or the driver pumps the brakes or turns sharply.
How to Use: Both systems are on by default but can be adjusted or even turned off within the system settings.
Limitations: Both systems work between 7 and 90mph. If the driver intervenes by turning sharply or applying the brakes (and releasing in the case of AEB), the system will disengage. Note: AEB may NOT work in all cases if you have Traffic Aware Cruise Control (TACC) activated (see TACC section above).
Compared to Others: Tesla’s system is generally good, but Volvo is considered to be the leader in this area and has spent considerable resources on additional features such as large animal detection and avoidance.
Speed Assist is designed to help you understand the current speed limit and warn you if you are going over a designated limit. It works by reading traffic speed signs and by using GPS position to determine what the speed limit should be. It provides both visual warnings on the instrument cluster (X and S) as well as visual chimes, if desired. You can adjust the threshold at which point you’d like to be warned (absolute, relative, etc.).
How to Use: Warnings can be turned on and of and adjusted in the system settings (for example no warnings, visual only, visual + chime, etc).
Limitations: Poor visibility and/or GPS signal may hinder the ability of the system to determine the speed limit.
Compared to Others: This is a typical function now available in most luxury cars and is generally comparable.
Tesla has the most advanced self-driving capabilities on the market for consumers, bar none. It handily beats other systems including GM’s Super Cruise, Nissan / Infinity’s ProPilot and Volvo’s Pilot Assist. That said, it’s a powerful and sophisticated system that requires driver attention and an understanding of its limitations. By contrast, GM’s Super Cruise does a better job of ensuring driver attentiveness (via eye tracking) and by restricting the roads where it can be used (limited to ones they mapped thoroughly).
If you’re the type of person who wants the latest-and-greatest, Tesla can’t be beat. On the other hand, if you want a relatively conservative system with the highest level of safety, GM’s Super Cruise is likely a better choice since it’s more restrictive and can only be used on certain roads and ensures the driver is paying attention. See Cars with Autopilot for more.
Thoughts After Testing
What we like:
- Excellent ability to stay within the lane and keep distance to cars
- Ability to use on almost any road
- Lane changing capabilities
- Navigate-on-Autopilot (on-ramp to off-ramp autonomy)
- Summon and Autopark
What could be better:
- Only initiating an automated lane change when clear (FSD)
- Turn on Autopilot automatically after manual lane change (non-FSD)
- Merging with other cars more confidently
- Smoother lane centering during lane merges
- Recognizing turn signals from other cars and slowing down to let them in.
- Improved Autopark without needing surrounding cars
- Improved Smart Summon with better reliability
On our wish list:
- Audible warning if there is a stopped car/object above 50 MPH with TACC active.
- Avoid driving in other car’s blind spots when possible by adjusting speed
- Veer slightly out of the way for passing motorcycles, if possible.
- Automatically turn on the rear-view camera when changing lanes (and keep on top).
Is the Full Self-Driving package worth an extra $7,000? It frankly depends on how much you believe Tesla will actually roll out autonomous features in addition to the ones already currently available in the package.
Considering a Tesla?
If you’re in the market for a new Tesla vehicle, be sure to take advantage of the Free Supercharging referral code program.