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. Currently, Tesla sells “Enhanced Autopilot”, which we’ll review in this article, but in the future will also allow customers to upgrade to “Full Self-Driving” when it becomes available, allowing the vehicle to 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 already 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.
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 used in Autopilot Hardware 1 (AP1) unit 2016 when Tesla decided to build its own system. Manufacturers using the Mobileye EyeQ3 (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.
In 2019, Mobileye is releasing their EyeQ4 system to manufacturers which will be much closer to what Tesla offers. For example a full-optioned 2019 BMW X5 will be one of the first non-Tesla vehicles to offer automatic lane changes. 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 (AP2) Hardware vs. Autopilot 1.0 (AP1)
The current hardware configuration 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 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 (AP1) hardware 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.
Enhanced Autopilot (today) vs. Full Self-Driving (future)
Tesla has 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 and lane changing while Full Self-Driving is a future feature that promises to fully drive the vehicle itself.
- 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. This was available for reservation originally (for around $4,000) but pulled in October 2018 since the technology was not ready yet and only confused customers.
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.
That said, with the release of Navigate on Autopilot in the Version 9 software update in Q4 of 2019, “Enhanced Autopilot” is starting to get some very FSD-ish features, like the ability to automatically drive and navigate from freeway on-ramp to exit. This could be one of the reasons why Tesla removed the FSD option for now as the two options were becoming fairly similar and likely caused confusion.
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. You can always purchase them later, albeit for a higher price.
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 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 Enhanced Autopilot include:
- Automated Cruise Control (ACC or TACC) with Automated Steering (Level 2)
- Ability to automatically change a lane upon user request
- Navigate-On-Autopilot that auto-navigates on freeways towards a destination
- 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, aka ACC)
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. 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.
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 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 should be releasing a worthy competitor with the 2019 X5.
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 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.
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: Only the 2019 BMW X5 has something similar.
Navigate on Autopilot
Navigate on Autopilot is arguably the most exciting Autopilot feature released in years and provides a glimpse of what Full Self-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.
Note that while Navigate on Autopilot was released in late 2018, it still requires the driver to confirm lanes changes for now. Tesla has said that once enough Tesla drivers have used the system on real roads (about 10 million miles), it will use that data to train the system and then remove the confirmation restriction. It’s estimated that will occur in early 2019.
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.
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.
It will also automatically, even today, 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 AP2 hardware vehicles, on freeways and (currently) requires driver confirmation of lane changes, except for direct freeway exits.
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 Full Self-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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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
- Lane Keeping Assist is far better than competitors
- Summon and Autopark
What could be better:
- Occasional harsh braking when leading cars slow down quickly
- Vehicle centers a bit too aggressively in merging lanes
- Improved Autopark without needing surrounding cars
On our wish list:
- Audible warning when initiating a lane change and there is a car in the blind spot
- 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).
Overall Tesla’s Autopilot system keeps getting better and we’re excited to see what’s in store for 2019!