By Josh Teder

September 8th 2018 – Autopilot is a technology almost synonymous with Tesla at this point. Every time I get stopped by someone asking about my Model 3, they always ask about how the car can drive itself.

Autopilot is one more part of Tesla’s strategy to make their vehicles so cool, modern, and an overall object of desire, people won’t even notice that by buying one, they’re helping to cut carbon and toxic emissions.

So how is Autopilot? It’s extremely impressive technology. When using it, even on curvy roads, it feels like glue keeping your car centered in the lane. I don’t think the technology is for everyone though, making it a challenge whether or not to recommend it to everyone.

Tesla Model 3 Autopilot at night.

Autopilot at night.

What is Autopilot?

Autopilot is an umbrella term for a bunch of different technologies. They all work together to keep the car safe and also allow it to drive itself in certain conditions.

All Teslas made today and for the past few years have come with Autopilot safety features standard. These features include automatic emergency breaking, front collision warning, side collision warning and auto-highbeams.

Autopilot convenance features do not come standard but rather as an option. Each Model 3 comes with the hardware necessary for Autopilot convenance features, so you can always add Autopilot after you’ve purchased the car.  It’ll cost you $1,000 extra to enable it after delivery though.

Autopilot hardware

Autopilot hardware for the Model 3 and other Teslas currently being made, is made up of a few different groups of hardware. The Model 3 has 8 cameras that give autopilot a 360 view of everything going on around the car.  This includes 3 cameras at the front. A forward radar is also included as a complementary system to the cameras.12 ultrasonic sensors can be found around the car. These help detect objects at short distances and come in handy for a variety of situations.  One example would be for parking.  They help make sure you don’t back into a wall.

The last piece of hardware required for Autopilot is the powerful computer that helps pull all the sensor data in and make decisions on actions the car should take.

A demo of the Tesla Model 3's Summon mode.

A demo of Summon mode.

Summon mode

Summon is a feature that allows you to control your car when no one is in the driver’s seat.  It’s a pretty fun party trick and can come in handy when backing your car out of a tight space.   Eventually, Summon will allow your car to drop you off and then go find a parking spot in a parking deck.

Model 3 Autopilot vs. S and X

While the technology behind autopilot in the Model 3 is exactly the same as what you’ll find on a comparable Model S or X, the actual experience of it is quite different.

This is due to two factors. One is there is only one screen in the Model 3 and the second is that there is no dedicated Autopilot stalk on the steering column.

So how does one enable Autopilot you may ask? Well, simply by pulling down the gear shifter twice. If you only pull it down once, that will enable traffic aware cruise control. Pulling down twice gives you the traffic aware cruise plus auto-steer.

More cowbell Autopilot easter egg.

More cowbell Autopilot easter egg.

What using Autopilot is like

The first time I ever used Autopilot while driving, I was freaking out.  It made me be very cautious about what the car was doing. What was so unexpected though, was how quickly I adapted to the car driving itself and started to trust it.

The system is constantly checking whether or not you have your hands on the wheel and if you’re paying attention. After a while, it’ll ask you to move the wheel a bit just so it knows you’re still alive. If you fail to do this, it’ll start flashing blue at the top of the screen. Eventually it’ll play a sound, giving you a little nudge to move the wheel. If you ignore it long enough, the car will disable auto-steer and lock you out of it until the car is put in park.

Autopilot disengage.

Autopilot disengage.

Overall I don’t find those reminders that annoying, and to me they don’t happen all that frequently. Although I do keep my hands on the wheel pretty much the entire time I have Autopilot enabled.

Adjusting the speed for Autopilot is intuitive. You just use the right scroll wheel on the steering wheel to adjust the speed by moving the wheel up and down. Click it to the left or right, and you’ll set the following distance for the traffic aware cruise control. You can also automatically adjust the speed if the speed changes by just hitting the speed limit sign on the screen.

When you need to pull into a parallel parking space, Autopilot can help.  Pull forward past the spot and put the car in reverse.  A little P will show up on the screen. If you click it, the car will self park in the space.

The experience of Autopilot is quite enjoyable and I’ve found it to be very useful on highways.  It’s also very useful in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Using Autopilot in traffic is probably one of the best uses for the technology today.  The car driving itself plus the live traffic visualization on the screen help make sitting in traffic much less stressful.  I think Autopilot helped reduce my blood pressure on the road at least.

Autopilot in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Autopilot in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Autopilot is not for everyone

While Autopilot has performed very well in two weeks I’ve tested it, there are instances where it hasn’t performed well. I’ve had it rapidly slow down when trying to determine whether or not to take an offramp as it splits from the highway. In another situation, adaptive cruise control thought cars parked on the side of the road were moving and braked accordingly. These infrequent slip ups serve as a reminder that this system isn’t perfect and can fail.  When it does, the drive better be ready to take back control of the vehicle.

This is  the reason I don’t think Autopilot is for everyone. The question around Autopilot should not be whether or not you trust Autopilot. The question should be whether you trust yourself enough to be there when Autopilot isn’t.  I think that will be more challenging for some than they care to admit.

Autopilot isn’t a level 5 system. You still have to pay attention to everything the car is doing.  Until Autopilot does reach level 5 autonomy,  I think there are certain people out there that shouldn’t use it. We’ve seen all types of misuse with the Autopilot system over the years on YouTube and unfortunately, sometimes they can turn deadly. But, if drivers keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention to what Autopilot is doing at all times, they should be fine.

Closing thoughts

Now that my trial is up, you’re probably wondering if I bought Autopilot. I didn’t.  I can’t justify spending 6k for Autopilot.  It just doesn’t do enough for me to justify that type of expense when factoring in how much use I’d get out of it.  I absolutely love the technology though, and if I had 6k l didn’t need for something else, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

I think over time Tesla may lower the price of Autopilot when their competitors come out with similar systems at a lower price point. Maybe if they lower the price to 4k, I’ll reconsider, but right now, it would be a fun expense, not enough of a practical one.

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