Tesla has one of the most advanced self-driving platforms on the market that’s included with every new car sold and can be activated through software updates. Although not all of it is fully deployed to customers yet, the Full Self-Driving features promise to allow the vehicle completely drive itself from start to finish. Even so, it’s current Enhanced Autopilot features provide sophisticated Level 2 autonomous driving (what do Levels mean?) making everyday freeway and stop-and-go traffic much a safer and enjoyable experience.
Continuous Advances via Software Upgrades
Telsa has somewhat disrupted the traditional automaker model by including all the hardware necessary for self-driving as part of every vehicle sold. Customers 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.
The Tesla Self-Driving Headstart
While Tesla has enjoyed a headstart in the market and arguably employs the most sophisticated hardware of any consumer-grade vehicle, other car manufacturers are slowly catching up. Volvo has been one of the leading car manufacturers employing self-driving and autonomous hardware with the popular XC90, XC60 and now XC40 SUVs. Nissan recently launched ProPilot on its Leaf and Rogue platform, and luxury manufacturers like Mercedes, BMW and Audi have also been steadily deploying autonomous technology. 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 features.
Autopilot and Self-Driving Hardware
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 Elon Musk (and he’ll upgrade it, if not). The Tesla Autopilot system relies primarily on cameras (vs. Lidar – see article), ultrasonic sensors and 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. 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 and machine learning to react to conditions in real-time.
Autopilot 2.0 Hardware vs. Original Autopilot
This hardware configuration wasn’t always the case. Full Self-Driving capabilities for Tesla vehicles is only available for those vehicles manufactured with Autopilot 2.0 hardware, beginning in Q4 of 2016. How can you tell if a Tesla has Autopilot 2.0? 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 hardware included in early Tesla models (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.
Enhanced Autopilot (today) vs. Full Self-Driving (future)
Tesla offers two tiers of autonomous driving – Enhanced Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (FSD). Enhanced Autopilot works today and is essentially an advanced cruise-control plus automatic steering system while Full Self-Driving is a future feature that promises to fully drive the vehicle itself and is something customers can “reserve” today.
- Enhanced Autopilot – Level 2 autonomy: advanced cruise control and automated steering, available today for $6,000 at time of purchase (or $7,000 afterward)
- Full Self-Driving (FSD) – Level 4 autonomy: promised future full self-driving autonomy, can reserve for $3,000 at time of purchase (or $4,000 afterward)
In this article, we’ll be reviewing the Enhanced Autopilot features since Full Self-Driving (FSD) has not yet been released. However, you can get a glimpse of the future by watching the Tesla Full Self Driving Demonstration videos.
What if you don’t opt for either the Enhanced Autopilot or Full Self-Driving Options? If you don’t select any advanced options, your Tesla comes default with basic automated safety systems as outlined below, including Lane Assist, Collision Avoidance Assist and Speed Assist.
Current Tesla Autonomous Driving Capabilities
Autonomous vehicles are generally classified into “Levels” (what do Levels mean?). The current Enhanced Autopilot software Tesla currently provides on its vechiles 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 include:
- Automated Cruise Control (ACC) with Automated Steering (Level 2)
- Ability to work in stop-and-go traffic
- Assisted Parking for both parallel and perpendicular spots
- Summon feature allowing your vehicle to automatically drive itself out of your garage.
- Upgradable to Full-Self Driving in the future (with Autopilot Hardware 2 and greater)
Self-Driving Features with Enhanced Autopilot
In the first section, we’ll walk through all the major self-driving features found in the Enhanced Autopilot section.
Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC)
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), 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 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.
- Model 3 – Push down once on the gear level while in Drive mode. Use the Touchscreen to adjust follow distance.
Limitations: Works from 18 to 90mph in generally clear visibility and straight roads.
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.
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).
- Model S or X – Pull the cruise control lever towards you twice.
- Model 3 – push down the gear lever twice to enable. You will hear a positive tone, letting you know it’s active.
- Highways and freeways – Autosteer should only be used on active highways and freeways with no cross traffic. Autosteer cannot detect 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 extended period of time (couple minutes), 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. On the flip side, systems like GM’s Super Cruise tend to be a bit more stable, but it’s limited to roads where GM has done extensive mapping ahead of time.
Auto Lane Change
Here’s a feature that almost no other car manufacturer currently offers 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 first disengage Autopilot and then re-engage it. It works, but some of the lane changes currently feel fairly aggressive and quick and can be somewhat unnerving, so it’s best to only use this function once you have thoroughly checked your surroundings.
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 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: No other car manufacturer provides this level of functionality to general consumers.
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.
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!
How to Use: 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.
Limitations: Only drives forward and reverse in a straight line and will not work with raised edges higher than one inch.
Compared to Others: Other manufacturers such as BMW and Mercedes have a similar feature in their higher end models.
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. 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 adjacent lane
How to Use: Automatically engaged. However, steering wheel vibration may be turned off in system settings.
Limitations: Steering wheel vibration (36 to 90mph), Steering intervention (30 to 85mph) on major highways with clear markings
Compared to Others: Generally good compared to others, however, the new systems on Volvo’s XC40 are rumored to provide better intervention and also 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.
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.
While the current self-driving features available to Tesla customers don’t seem that far ahead of others in the space, the impressive set of hardware included in each vehicle and continuous software updates make a smart bet for those who want the latest in autonomous car technology, particularly with the new, lower-priced Model 3. We’re excited to see what’s in store for 2018.
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