The Autopilot system is comprised of several different subsystems that include Autosteer, Auto Lane Change, Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, Side Collision Warning and Autopark.
The Autopilot suite of features will be available to Model S cars built after September 2014 — essentially, any Tesla with the appropriate sensors. Existing owners who already purchased the $2,500 Autopilot package will get this update for free. With the 7.0 update, drivers will notice the look of their instrument cluster has changed, displaying an updated icon of the vehicle. This icon will show a detected vehicle ahead, lane marking readings and roadway obstacle warnings. All exciting things — so let’s dig into these new features one by one.
This is the new feature drivers will find most foreign and distinctive in the Autopilot suite, as the car effectively steers itself down the freeway. To activate Autosteer, the driver simply pulls the cruise control lever twice in quick succession. Turning on Autosteer also engages Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, which is Tesla’s cruise control system that adjusts the speed of the Model S based upon the speed of the vehicle ahead.
How autopilot looks on the Tesla Model S dashboard
Once Autosteer is on, a chime will ding. The sensors in the front of the Model S monitor the lane markings ahead and automatically adjust steering to keep the car within the markings. Now, if you were hoping that Autosteer would free up your hands for some idle work, like, say, whittling, I have some bad news. As with self-steering systems from other automakers, including Honda and Mercedes-Benz, Tesla asks the driver to keep his or her hands on the wheel at all times. That said, I was able to turn on Autosteer and keep my hands in my lap for miles with no problem. Tesla is quick to point out that rainy, snowy or foggy conditions will deteriorate the Autosteer performance. If Autosteer cannot read the lane markings, it will not be able to work. Autosteer will also cut out if the road the Model S is traveling on is too twisty. In ideal conditions, however, the Model S will be able to keep itself within its lane without any input from the driver — except the reassuring feeling that the driver’s hands are still on the wheel.
Side Collision Warning
If Autosteer can’t confidently operate, it will display a warning for the driver in the instrument cluster. If the driver does not take over immediately, it will chime at you. If the driver still does not retake control of steering, the car will chime incessantly. If the driver does not take control after a few seconds, the Model S will bring itself to a swift stop in the lane and activate the emergency flashers.
Auto Lane Change
Now here’s where the Tesla Autopilot suite gets interesting. When Autosteer and Traffic-Aware Cruise Control are engaged, the Model S can autonomously change lanes. This is the biggest distinction between Autopilot and any other carmaker’s mild autonomy setups.
Tesla Autopilot in action
Say you want to pass the car ahead of you — simply signal in the direction in which you want to merge (which would be to your left because you don’t want to pass illegally on the right, right?) and the Model S will move into the lane in the direction you indicated with your turn signal. As it does this, the icon of the car in the instrument panel screen will go from a solid to a dashed line. Once the Model S determines the lane change is complete, the dashed line will return to a solid line and you can switch off the turn signal.
Side Collision Warning
Should a car or another object get too close to your Model S for its own comfort, it will alert you with visual cues on the digital instrument cluster. The graphics indicating an impending collision resemble radiating, fluid lines coming off the side of the little digital Model S on the screen. Arguably, this seems like a pretty innocuous extension of side blind-spot monitoring. Side Collision Warning does have an interesting feature, though. Should a car or object get too close to the Model S, it will autonomously steer out of the way while still keeping itself in its own lane. Intriguingly, this safety feature will activate even if the driver has disabled Side Collision Warning in the system settings.
Should you find a parallel parking spot that you don’t feel quite up to the task of threading your Model S into, it can now do the duty for you. After you pass a suitable parking spot, a P logo will appear on the instrument cluster, indicating to you the car has seen the spot and is ready to park in it. Put the vehicle into reverse and the Autopark guide will appear on the screen alongside the reverse camera image. Once you engage Autopark, the system controls both steering and vehicle speed. This is in stark contrast to a similar system from Ford, which relies on the driver to control vehicle speed with throttle and brake inputs. Should you want to stop the Tesla Autopark system at any time, you can do so by taking over steering operation, stepping on the brake or simply pushing the cancel button. If you were hoping to whiz through town without a care in the world while your car searches for a parking spot, think again. Autopark will only recognize suitable parking spots when it is traveling below 15 mph.
A slide from Tesla’s presentation on Autopilot, featuring the Version 7.0 dashboard
Of course, being Tesla, the 7.0 software update includes more than Autopilot. It also includes a new feature called Vehicle Hold, which is an extension to Hill Start Assist, which holds the car in place on steep inclines between the driver releasing the brake and applying the accelerator. Vehicle Hold will also keep the Model S in place for extended periods of time. When engaged, the system is essentially a flexible parking brake, one that can be easily released by pressing the accelerator pedal. Tesla has also updated the look of the instrument cluster energy usage display and clock in addition to the aforementioned vehicle icons that display the Autopilot functions.
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