Does it work? We put Tesla’s Autopilot to the test

Published: 08 May 2016

► Does it work? Tesla's Autopilot autonomous tech
► Sit back and relax, let Tesla drive you
► Motorway driving just became easier 

Is the Tesla Model S truly autonomous? Unfortunately you still can’t simply tell it to take you to work in the morning. But Autopilot now allows the Model S to drive itself along a motorway entirely unaided.

The longest uninterrupted stretch of motorway in the UK runs from the bottom of the M6 in the Midlands to Glasgow, 320 miles away, or almost exactly the range of a Model S 85D. Surely the ability to travel that distance without requiring the (human) driver to touch the throttle, brake or steering wheel makes the Model S our first autonomous car. But does it work?

Not entirely, says Elon Musk. Autopilot is part of the new 7.0 version of Tesla’s operating system, and the company is open about the fact that much of it is still in ‘beta’. That means it isn’t finished and needs testing to iron out the bugs. Tesla’s wealthy, early-adopting customers are the guinea pigs, if they’ve paid the £2100 for Autopilot on a new Model S, or £2500 to enable it after downloading 7.0 to an existing car. 

Tesla Model S

All Teslas built after September 2014 have the requisite hardware. That’s around 60,000 cars, and this is Tesla’s killer advantage. Even if a small fraction of those have Autopilot enabled, Tesla will have easily the biggest self-driving fleet: far bigger than Google’s. Each car sends what it has learnt back to HQ (anonymously), turbocharging the rate at which Tesla can improve its software and increase the autonomy.

Active cruise control will either maintain your chosen speed, or lock onto the car in front and brake yours to a standstill if required. Nothing new there. But Autopilot’s Autosteer function now uses the forward camera to keep you between lane markings, if it can see them. Put the two together and voila! Autonomy. But only on motorways for now, Tesla warns, and you should be ready to take control again, so no reading the paper. I tested the US version that will even change lanes hands-free with just a flick of the indicators, but European regulators require you to be at least touching the wheel for that. For now…

Did it work? 

Rejoice! The fairly autonomous car is finally here. Autopilot coped with the rush-hour M4 with aplomb. Crucially, I trusted it. Ignoring Elon, I tried it off the motorway too and it took longer to lose the plot than I’d expected. And the first ‘learning-based’ refinements to Autopilot will be downloadable within weeks.

4 steps to driving autonomy

1) Make like a pilot 

Pilot settings

Engage active cruise control and set your chosen maximum speed

2) Ask the car to steer

Ask the car to steer

Once the display shows that the camera has spotted lane markings on either side, a couple of tugs on the cruise lever engages Autosteer

3) Why change lanes yourself?

Why change lanes yourself?

If the 360-degree ultrasonic sensors say it’s safe, Auto Lane Change does what the name suggests, hands-free – but not in Europe yet

4) Think of something to do

You may get bored. If you want to take control, just take the controls

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features