Courtesy of sister company, Georgia EVentures (Georgia EVentures, LLC), I was able to drive their 2015 Tesla Model S60 with the newly downloaded Autopilot features on a 950 mile round trip between Atlanta and Raleigh NC with stops in Charlotte and Winston-Salem between October 19th and 22nd.
Here are my experiences with each of the Autopilot features:
- Adaptive Cruise Control (TACC) works by setting the number of car lengths desired to follow the vehicle in front of you which adjusts the Tesla’s speed to maintain that distance all the way to a full stop. This feature has been available since the “Autopilot” equipment (windshield mounted camera, lower facia mounted sonar and sensors on the front and rear bumper sections) but has been improved with the addition of the other features. This core offering of Autopilot works quite well. As I came upon slower moving cars and trucks, the Tesla slowed down according, and as those vehicles changed lanes, the Tesla sped back up to the prescribed speed which can be set in increments of 1 mph or 5 mph depending upon how you activate the stalk. Acceleration is smooth and sure. But on a few occassions, it did not accurately sense the rapid change in traffic fast enough and I have had to intervene. On Friday, post trip, I got an odd ‘crash’ indication on the instrument cluster when no obstacles were in my way. Overall Grade: B
- Auto Steer works by first engaging adaptive cruise control with one pull of the lower left lever toward the driver which shows the TACC icon turn blue, followed by a second pull on the lever to activate Autosteer, also with a dash icon turning blue when activated. This really does take an act of faith to ‘let go of the wheel’ but soon I found that the Tesla was steering itself better than I was! Using all of the camera/sonar/sensors, Auto Steer is constantly scanning the left and right painted lane lines and keeping the Tesla exactly in the center of the lane. It handles grade changes and curves with ease. The lanes markings on the newly designed instrument cluster turn blue when Auto Steer is active and if one side of the lane cannot be discerned, the lane color changes to grey/white. If Auto Steer cannot see the lane marking, it prompts you to ‘take control of the steering wheel.” Easy, just grab the wheel and in doing so it ‘breaks’ the Auto Steer control while maintaining Adaptive Cruise Control. While I limited my Auto Steer use to hundreds of miles of highway driving, it could be engaged at speeds of 30 mph if the lane markings were clear. I did notice the function was disabled on a very dark early morning drive in Winston-Salem NC where lane markings were too faint for the system to register. I only experienced errant Auto Steer on four occassions when it tried to move into an exit lane in search of the lane marking. With Tesla actively mapping all data from Auto Steer, that should improve with thousands of real-time data points being captured daily. This has been the most debated feature in the Autopilot suite. My experience: used properly Auto Steer works as advertised. Keep your hands on or near the steering wheel (I used a tracing grip where I just allowed the wheel to move in my hands without expending any effort) with an occassional hands-free event and Auto Steer will truly reduce driving fatigue. Overall Grade: A-
- Auto Lane Change works by activating the left or right turn indicator when the Tesla is in Autopilot mode. I found this to be the most useful, safe and reliable feature of Autopilot. For both left lane and right lane change manuevers, the feature worked perfectly, measuring speed and distance to safely pass, execute the lane change, then show the car was firmly in the center of the lane (line marking goes from dashed to solid) cueing me to cancel the turn indicator. Only once did Auto Lane Change have to abort a manuever when a pick up truck came up on the Tesla too fast to allow it to safely change lanes. The Tesla simply stayed in its current lane. I felt that Auto Lane Change saw obstacles and blind spots (of which the low raking rear roof is one) much better than I could. Overall Grade: A+
- Auto Parallel Park: I had no opportunity to use this feature so that will have to wait for a follow up review.
- BIG DATA: Remember, Tesla has clearly declared this version of Autopilot to be a Beta version and the 40,000+ equipped and engaged Autopilot Model S drivers are providing valuable feedback to Tesla/Google mapping to improve the performance of the suite of Autopilot capabilities fairly quickly.
Overall Grade: A- the first generation Autopilot is intuitive, reduces driver fatigue (950 miles proved it to me) and can predictably and reliably execute its functions. It will get better and better . . . so stay tuned for updates.