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We sample Tesla's new autopilot function which falls short of being fully autonomous but, with automatic lane changing, makes light work of heavy traffic

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28 October 2015

What is it?

The latest software update for the Tesla Model S features the company’s Autopilot technology. While it’s some way from being the autonomous car promised by the futurists, it takes great strides towards making driving in heavy traffic much less of a chore.

A £2100 option, the system introduces ‘traffic aware cruise control’ (Tesla’s version of the familiar radar cruise), automatic parallel parking, side collision avoidance and automatic lane changing.

Model S cars that were built in the past 12 months or so are already fitted with the sensors needed for the autopilot feature. These include ultrasonic sensors (which give the car’s brain a 360-degree view of its immediate surroundings) and forward-facing radar sensors. The car also has a forward-facing camera. 

Autopilot uses these sensors in combination with GPS-driven satellite navigation and ‘high precision digital maps’ to give the car a pretty comprehensive idea of where it is, where other cars are, where the road is heading and how close it might be to the central reservation on the motorway.

The 7.0 update also features redesigned screen graphics in the main instrument binnacle, giving the option of a display that’s dominated by a rendering of the car sitting in a single lane. When the car’s forward-facing camera detects white lines (constant or broken) the graphic shows these as defined edges on the virtual road. This is a good indication that the Model S’s autopilot system is confident enough to engage.

What's it like?

In heavy motorway traffic, very impressive. The automatic parking and radar cruise control features are already well established in many new cars, but the automatic lane changing is a step-change for driving assistance.

The European version of the 7.0 update differs from the US software in that the driver has to have their hands in contact with the steering wheel - albeit very lightly - for the car to execute an automatic lane change.

We tried the autopilot system on the Eastern end of the M4 motorway, looping from Heathrow into the centre of the capital and back. There’s no doubt that the autopilot is at its best in relatively heavy traffic. 

When the car’s all-round sensors have something to lock onto, as well as white lines to help it centre itself in a lane, the Model S runs very confidently in the traffic, automatically adjusting its speed and slowing neatly so it can roll along in the flow.

The radar cruise control is activated by tipping a lever on the left side of the steering column, but the set speed can only be adjusted in 5mph increments, which is a bit limiting for the UK’s cramped roads. Pulling the same lever twice towards the driver activates the automatic steering and lane change features.

The self-steering works very well in heavy traffic. It’s remarkable just how much strain is lifted from the driver when the car not only keeps itself centred in a lane, but also a discrete (three-stage adjustable) distance from the car in front. 

On first experience, auto lane changing is not quite as effortless as simply following a lane, mostly because years of driving instinct is against it. It is activated by flicking the indicator stalk, while covering the wheel rim with your hands. There’s no need to grip the wheel, but it takes quite a lot of counter-intuitive effort to allow the Tesla to execute the lane change unaided.

There’s no doubt it works, though. The car moves crisply into the next lane and centres itself in a second or so. After a few hours at the wheel of an autopilot-equipped Model S, I’m certain the driver would be confidently letting the car change lanes without much thought.

Running off the end of the M4, on to an urban three-lane dual carriageway, the self steering feature still worked surprising well, despite the confusion that can be caused by yellow boxes, cross-hatch lane markings and faded lines. 

However, the system is intelligent, so the more miles an autopilot-equipped Model S' covers, the more efficient subsequent software updates will be. This is because the information that autopilot-equipped cars ’learn’ about differing road conditions around the world is uploaded to the Tesla cloud.

Should I buy one?

The Model S remains a compelling premium luxury car. The substantial on-demand thrust from the electric drivetrain is addictive, the ride is more than acceptable on the UK’s cratered roads and the handling is on the crisply satisfying side, especially for such a wide and heavy car.

Autopilot really does make sense for long-distance drivers or those who might spend a lot of time commuting in heavy motorway traffic. At the moment, it is not ready for use in city congestion, but even at this ‘Beta’ stage, it takes a load off the driver’s mind and will make a big contribution to reducing stress and tiredness, especially at night and in bad weather.

Location West London; On sale Now; Price £52,900 + £2100 for Autopilot; Engine Rear-mounted electric motor; Power 382bhp; Torque 325lb ft; 0-60mph 5.4sec; Top speed 140mph; Kerb weight 2107kg; Gearbox Single speed reducer; Economy 310 miles range (NEDC); CO2/BIK tax 0g/km/5% 

 

Join the debate

Comments
14

28 October 2015
Tesla never ceases to amaze whether its the fastest saloon or autonomous technology.

28 October 2015
Autocar wrote:

Autopilot really does make sense for long-distance drivers

Trouble is, the car itself doesn't.

Autocar wrote:

it is not ready for use in city congestion

Then what is the point of this, as that is where most Teslas are used.

Autocar wrote:

a big contribution to reducing stress and tiredness, especially at night and in bad weather

In these conditions, drivers need to concentrate *more* not less. A system which inhibits this and lulls them into a false sense of security is a bad idea. And if they're tired then they should not be driving at all.

28 October 2015
Norma Smellons wrote:
Autocar wrote:

Autopilot really does make sense for long-distance drivers

Trouble is, the car itself doesn't.

When did you last drive 500 miles with a 20 minute break? I do some big road trips, but I never budget more than 300 miles in a day, and those are a days worth of driving in general.

Autocar wrote:

it is not ready for use in city congestion

Then what is the point of this, as that is where most Teslas are used.

It's an Intelligent system. It's going to learn far quicker by being out in the real world with x thousand owners than the google method.

Autocar wrote:

a big contribution to reducing stress and tiredness, especially at night and in bad weather

In these conditions, drivers need to concentrate *more* not less. A system which inhibits this and lulls them into a false sense of security is a bad idea. And if they're tired then they should not be driving at all.

Sure, but the drivers will be more relaxed at the time of high concentration having done the previous miles with reduced load. Out of interest, where do you see the future of motoring in 2040?

28 October 2015
Every time I see the name Smellons crop up you know its just to bash Tesla. Methinks you doth protest too much you utter and complete bore.

29 October 2015
Some people say you're just an obnoxious, thick troll with only "one or two" brain cells. And no discernable arguments, just abuse. But I think you're really lovely...

29 October 2015
There are no other people...Just you who makes abusive, obnoxious unreasoning comments about everything Electric but particularly Tesla.
Have you lost your money by shorting their stock because your behaviour is so outside normal thinking you have become a laughing stock amongst
many readers.

28 October 2015
Phil R wrote:

Out of interest, where do you see the future of motoring in 2040?

The internal combustion engine with a small but larger market share of electric cars. Where do you see it?


29 October 2015
Winston is right. Furthermore, many ICE cars will be shale gas powered whilst most EVs will be hydrogen-powered. And equally as useless, since the ruling Green Party has banned all hydrogen because it upsets "Trans" people, apparently. Meanwhile, Tesla has long gone bust, after President Trump cut off the subsidy following a huge explosion at the Gigafactory. However, in 2040, the Stones are still touring. And you've guessed it - Bernie Ecclestone is still alive.

29 October 2015
Norma Smellons, Pay no attention, I prattle on because I like to see my name in lights- Yawn

29 October 2015
Winston Churchill wrote:
Phil R wrote:

Out of interest, where do you see the future of motoring in 2040?

The internal combustion engine with a small but larger market share of electric cars. Where do you see it?

I think I'll still be trying to understand your statement. Anyhow if plugin sales carry on growing at the current rate then ev cats will be king with over 50% of the market. Hydrogen power will be still a pipe dream by some idots though

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

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