With the recent deadly crash of a Tesla Model X electric crossover in California, where a driver was found to have the car’s “Autopilot” system engaged when the vehicle hit a barrier, Tesla‘s semi-autonomous driving system has come under the microscope. But what is it, exactly, and do you want such a system on your next ride? Here’s what you need to know.
1. Teslas with Autopilot are not self-driving cars. Yet.
Contrary to what you might think, you can’t hop in a Tesla Model S, set its nav destination to Whole Foods, then sit back and scroll Instagram while the car takes you to lunch. In its current iteration, Autopilot is essentially a suite of technologies that form a guided cruise control: It combines an adaptive cruise control system that maintains your pace relative to other cars, while a lane-keeping system centers your vehicle between the stripes. The systems gather data through use of eight cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and forward-facing radar. Your hands also have to be on the wheel for the system to function: Even if you aren’t “steering” or making big corrections to the wheel, it can detect the tiny torque changes that your hands make on the wheel even if they’re just resting. Take your hands off the wheel and the system will make several warnings before decelerating the vehicle to a stop and turning on its blinkers.
2. Autopilot is imperfect. As are human drivers.
In a study of a fatal 2016 Florida crash, the National Transportation Safety Board panel found that Tesla’s Autopilot system did not detect a truck making a lefthand turn in front of a Tesla Model S from a cross street (the truck should have been yielding to traffic; it didn’t). The NTSB report did not fault Tesla in the crash, but instead, the driver—for failing to pay adequate attention. Both the Autopilot system and apparently, the driver, did not see the light-colored truck against a bright sky. Tesla continuously uses data mined from Autopilot users to improve the system, and sends updates to the Autopilot system over the air. Autopilot will continue to improve, though driver attentiveness likely won’t.
3. Tesla trumpets a government report stating that Autopilot’s use might reduce crash rates 40%; but some experts find that number contentious.
In the wake of the most recent deadly Tesla crash, the company has, in statements, pointed to a January 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report that stated that model year 2014-2016 Tesla vehicles equipped with Autopilot had a 40 percent reduction in crash rates. But the government didn’t release the figures that would show how statistically significant that study might be. Safety advocates will continue to pressing for more, and more transparent, data on the Autopilot system.
4. The most advanced semi-autonomous system is arguably not even Tesla’s.
GM’s Supercruise system, launched on the CT6 sedan, can pilot the car for minutes—or hours, even, with your hands off the wheel. We took a CT6 equipped with the system to Texas Highway 130—also known as the fastest road in America (speed limit 85)—to test it out. Like Tesla’s Autopilot, the Supercruise system uses radar and cameras to locate lane lines, other vehicles, and obstructions, but Supercruise adds 130,000 miles of lidar maps to pinpoint the exact location of your car even within a lane for an added measure of safety. Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot, Cadillac’s system also puts cameras on the driver: One mounted on the steering column tracks your head motion to ensure you’re paying attention, and when conditions permit, the steering wheel lights up in blue. Push a button and it goes green and “takes the wheel,” effectively. We went minutes between wheel-touches, but had to take the wheel when construction zones popped up, or lanes widened at an exit. Like Tesla’s Autopilot, Supercruise is not yet perfect, and close attention is still required.
5. Tesla’s Autopilot will continue to evolve.
In an earnings call earlier this year, Tesla founder Elon Musk said that the company would be able to demonstrate a car that can drive autonomously from coast to coast within months, adding that the functionality would be available to consumers (though he didn’t mention a timespan). Here’s what that shows: Tesla is likely to introduce near self-driving tech, but regulations will likely require the driver to be responsible and able to take control at any time. So you won’t be able to fall asleep in Los Angeles and wake up in New York City in a Tesla just yet—but the drive might be a little easier.
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