A road trip without Tesla Autopilot is akin to torture

Photo credit: Electric Jen

I’ve recently returned from a family beach vacation that required about 600 miles of road travel. As an avid enthusiast and follower of the developments of Tesla, I am very aware of Autopilot’s capabilities and limitations and I hope it is one of the last times I have to cover such distance without its assistance. At the time of this writing, the current abilities of the system would have made the drive immeasurably better. 600 miles may not seem like a huge journey to some people, but compared to my regular travel diet, it may as well have been a million.

Let me set the tone. It has become an annual tradition for my in-laws to invite my family along to their beach vacation. The travel portion alone is a 1-2 day micro-convoy, typically lead by the father-in-law. Starting around Hershey, Pennsylvania, and enduring a passive Civil War history lesson on our way to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It always amazes me how regional diction can vary so much with a slight change in latitude. The normal traffic volume obstacles generally steal years from your life around Washington DC and Richmond, Virgina if you choose to take the I-95 straight shot down. Stopped traffic with no exit in sight is not a good match for our tiny-bladdered precious cargo. Therefore, we take the long way around and hope for thinner crowds.

In my younger years, before children, corrective lenses and normal bodily wear and tear, I would go as far to say that I enjoyed the long drive. My undivided attention to the road and surroundings must have added a layer of control and ease that I no longer feel. Now I am responsible for more lives. Ironically, the same lives that I am constantly trying to protect are also unintentionally adding sensory distractions, exponentially diluting the focus that needs to be dedicated to the road.

“Holding onto the wheel as you generally progress in a straight line forward seems more akin to torture.”

I still enjoy driving, but I hardly consider highway travel to be true driving. Holding onto the wheel as you generally progress in a straight line forward seems more akin to torture. Winding local roads that provide constant stimulation and driving dynamics are much more enjoyable. I’m not sure what the statistics would say, but I am a safer, more alert, driver on roads like this.

While the task of following the leader may seem incredibly simple on the surface, a deeper evaluation reveals why the assistance of Autopilot would excel in all the areas that a human might struggle. Attention, fatigue, refined control, and response time are common weaknesses that every person has to some extent. This type of driving can be quite dangerous, and it’s important to not lose respect for that.

It is extremely difficult to devote complete attention to the road for the entirety of 600 miles. There is a pretty good chance that most drivers will find themselves looking around occasionally. We passed a couple of crashes along the way and observed a few near misses from people rubbernecking. Even if you had unbroken focus, unexpected events can happen during a quick blind-spot check.

Autopilot cannot see infinitely in all directions, but it is still able to constantly maintain its views in normal traffic. It won’t look away for a moment. As a machine, it’s programmed to perform its given task and cannot be distracted or break focus.

Fatigue is a very real risk that grows more dangerous with every mile. It can seemingly creep up and at any moment. While it helps to have company in the vehicle, if conversation wanes, things can get dicey.

Again, Autopilot cannot grow tired over time. There is no way that it can fall asleep.

I think it is safe to assume that nearly everyone has wandered onto the rumble strips on the edge of the lane at some point – often causing a slight overreaction to correct. Or maybe you just seem to drift along within your lane, visiting each side from time to time. I have to admit, despite my acknowledgment of drifting, it sometimes seems that a conscious effort to correct it is temporarily not effective. I don’t want to quickly veer back into alignment in a big action that would seem like I lost control or attention, but my attempts to make a slow move back to the middle of the lane are not working. Can I blame the car or the road for this? Perhaps it’s the trend of the car in front of me and my mental ‘autopilot’ is just following the same path. Maybe I’m being hypnotized and lured in by the rhythmic dashed lines sweeping by. Whatever the cause, soon the neighboring semi’s graceful forward stampede gets a bit too close for comfort and I snap out of it as my heart goes into momentary adrenaline mode. A good anxiety recipe for the travelers around me. It is important for people like me to admit that we are crappy drivers. At least I’m not the moron that is too lazy to flick the turn signal wand for lane shifts.

As Autopilot matures, so does its ability to stay centered within a lane. As soon as I get assistance from Autopilot, the road and people around me will become that much safer. Like a train fixed to a track, it can’t be hypnotized or anxious through my own or neighboring human error. And it certainly will not shift from one to another without the driver initiating via a signal.

Among the most important benefits of Autopilot has to be the response time. The scenario that comes to mind is sudden deceleration events. Maybe your eyes are focused on a roadside sight or the neighboring lane when the vehicle in front of yours begins to slow. Even if you catch it in time to slow before a collision, a sudden slowing of your own vehicle reduces the reaction time for the drivers behind you. It gets exponentially more dangerous for a driver to the rear and often ends in contact. Reaction time circles back to the fact that autopilot is always paying attention.

My travels would have been far less stressful if I had the aid of Autopilot. The closest experience I had to an Autopilot environment took place while I was in the passenger seat while my wife drove. I was able to take in some truly breathtaking views that I may have missed if I were safely focused on traffic. Who knew that the Virginian Appalachian mountains were so beautiful? A scenic overlook that could easily be missed since the highway wound around bends in a clearing.

Full autonomy will be the ultimate protection against me and my driving tendencies. For now, the beta Autopilot can serve as the perfect supplement to my inadequacies.

Not to undersell the importance of safety, but I want to be able to enjoy a long road trip again. I want to feel comfortable enough to pry just one hand off the wheel so that I can annihilate a can of Pringles while the kids are too engrossed in Finding Nemo to notice I should have shared. I want to feel like I’m no longer terrorizing my wife and the drivers around me with my inexplicable tendency to grind and ping pong the edges of my lane.

I fantasize about this incredible sense of ease that Autopilot would add to a trip of this sort. The desire for more frequent and further road trips may find welcome. Road travel once defined an era of adventure and exploration. It powered local tourism and small business economies. Before highways became monsters and gas pumps robbed us of our planet’s future in addition to hard-earn money, there was a sense of unbound geographical freedom. It sparked the imagination of the children in the back seat while giving adults conquered goals. I want that. I need that. I need Autopilot.

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