By Micheal Ballaban
The Tesla Model S isn’t the first truly autonomous car on the road and available for sale to the public. We’re not there yet, just as a society. But it is the first car with what Tesla’s calling its “Autopilot” system. And if this is the future not of driving, but of sitting in traffic, then please sign me up..
Autopilot, if it isn’t a full autonomous system, is simple enough in execution. It won’t drive you to your ultimate destination, it won’t make navigational turns without your input, and it doesn’t know what the traffic light or the sign in front of you says. So think of it less like an autonomous system, and rather more like the ultimate execution of cruise control. It uses a forward-looking radar, a front-facing camera, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and GPS to make sure everything stays on the road, and it seems to work well enough using those.
But even if it’s just the holy grail of cruise control, its execution is almost perfect.
I say almost perfect, because it isn’t flawless. I’m not entirely sure that was the car’s fault, however. We drove, or rather operated the system because you’re actually much closer to a “systems operator” than a driver in this case, in about 20 minutes of New York City traffic. Most people, when faced with the chaotic trash soup known as New York City traffic for the first time, instantly back out and make up some meek excuse about wanting to take a taxi instead. So it was very brave of Tesla to have this be the very first place we’d try it.
It’s easy enough to get the Autopilot system going. Make sure you’re in a place with clearly marked lanes (no wide, vast expanses of blank blacktop for you, but if you’ve got that why are you letting the computer drive anyway? Who makes that sort of decision? How did you come obtain a Tesla? WHO MAKES THESE HORRIBLE CHOICES?), and makes sure your foot isn’t on the brake.
The system will bring you to a halt if you’ve got it on already, but if you want to turn it on, you need to be moving a bit. Under 18 miles per hour, you’ll need a car in front of you to get the system to turn on. Over that, and as long as there’s lanes, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem.
If you’re rolling at even five miles per hour, the system seems to take over just fine, and it’ll keep you going all the way up to somewhere north of 75 MPH.
When it’s ready, you’ll see the first of two icons appear in your instrument cluster. The first is an active cruise control function, like you’ll see on a lot of new cars today. And the second, on the right hand side, will be a steering wheel.
See those two icons, pull the cruise control mini-stalk sticking out of the steering column, and you’re off to the races. Or, in this case, you’re off to a car driving itself in traffic.
And it really is eerie at first, to be sitting in the driver’s seat and see the wheel moving itself. You see massive trucks to the left, and suicidal taxis to the right, and you know, you just know, that you’re going to smash into one of them and face a very apologetic Tesla representative in the passenger seat.
But you don’t. In the dash in front of you, the car actually gives you a display of what its onboard computer is seeing. You see displays of ultrasonic sensors firing off to the left and right of you, you see a generic illustration of the car in front of you halfway out of its own lane, and the car essentially reassures you – “it’s alright, I’ve got it, I see the chaotic trash soup surrounding us, and you’re not going to hit anything.”
And you really don’t. You just move along with traffic, the car speeding up to your desired maximum speed and slowing down to maintain the pace, the wheel gently bending this way and that as curves come up. You don’t hit the random construction cones jutting out into your lane, and you don’t mow down any passing nuns and/or children.
It’ll change lanes on its own, too, which is just about the weirdest part. Make sure the lane next to you is clear, turn on your signal, and it’ll make a prettier lane change than you probably can.
Like I said, though, it isn’t perfect. When one of the suicidal taxis actually thinks about ending it all, and goes for a kamikaze attack right into your lane, the car might freak out a bit, sounding alarms and asking you to take control. All of this is happening while it preemptively hits the brakes in a desperate, flailing attempt at self-preservation, even if the taxi driver immediately steps on the gas and somehow brings their car to speed at rates that seem physically impossible. And, if the car you’re following changes lanes in an intersection because people are terrible drivers, the car might try to follow, simply as it can’t see any dotted lines and it just assumes the car in front of it is doing the right thing, which it isn’t. Plus it supposedly doesn’t work that well in very heavy precipitation just yet, though it’ll be better in the future.
But all of those issues aren’t really the fault of the machine, those are problems created by imperfect humans. Oddly enough, Tesla CEO Elon Musk says that the system, connected to thousands of Teslas on the road, constantly learns and constantly improves from the world around it. It will learn from others’ mistakes, and it will make traffic better because of it.
Which is why I don’t have any sort of problem with this system. We may love driving, but that’s just it. We love driving. We don’t love sitting in traffic, chewing on our nails and letting ourselves go nuts with the tedium. We don’t love worrying that we’re going to pass out from boredom and smack into someone else’s Toyota.
And at the end of the day, it’s really the perfect kind of car that gets rid of all of the bad with driving, and keeps the good. With Ludicrous Mode and its obscene 2.7-second-to-highway-speed acceleration, it’s like having everything you could want, and none of what you don’t.