How Tesla Autopilot Changes Your Perception of ‘Driving’

So what does driving boil down to with an increasingly improving Autopilot (AP)? We hear and think and talk a lot about how great Tesla’s equipped cars are at it. Even Car and Driver has declared Tesla’s Autopilot the winner among several semi-autonomous driving packages.

The Autopilot suite of features is remarkably easy to control and as a result has reshaped my definition of what ‘driving’ has really become. Driving as I know it has become a sequence of taps and flicks, all thanks to the ease with which Tesla has allowed me to regulate the vehicle using AP. Not just turning it on and off (which is also super easy) but selectively controlling its features.

As is often the case when I get behind the wheel, this week I came up with yet another revelation. It is absolutely amazing how much say I have in getting the car to do what I want, when I want and how I want. All through a single stalk. Even more amazing is how easy and intuitive my commands are and how quickly she obeys.

My usual commute is a mess. It looks something like this:

  • 2 miles at highway speeds (55 – 65 mph)
  • Slow to < 10 mph as we approach an adjoining highway
  • Drive .5 miles in stop-and-go traffic (5-25 mph)
  • Speed up as traffic breaks up but immediately enter a construction zone (25-50 mph; temp speed limit: 45 mph)
  • Drive 2 miles at greatly fluctuating speeds with construction-esque lane markings that range from dotted to solid, faded to doubled, old to new.
  • Leave construction zone, enjoy the 55 mph speed limit for about 30 seconds
  • Approach the next construction zone/congestion area and spend 1 mile in the exit lane waiting to get off (5-35 mph)

Autopilot is a savior in standard stop-and-go traffic, where you know you are going between 5-25 mph. It also really excels when those stretches break for small distances and give way to near highway speeds. When you consider the fluctuating speed limits (permanent 55 vs. periodic temporary 45 zones in the construction) it requires a little more thought. Add in inconsistent lane markings and you start to wonder if Autopilot is really appropriate. Except, Autopilot is a well-trained obedient pup, more than happy to execute commands quickly and frequently if the master so desires.

When I first get on the highway and am cruising at usual speeds, I may or may not engage. Once those first 2 miles are behind me and I approach my first jam, I quickly glance at my dash screen, verify the blue lines and available steering wheel (Autosteer) symbol and pull my lower steering wheel stalk toward me. This all occurs in what I estimate to be no more than 2 full seconds. I only use the pressure of two fingers to pull the stalk toward me, double time, and instantly hear the chime that tells me my car is happy to comply and take over driving for a bit. I usually flick the stalk down to change the max speed to match the flow of traffic so as to not speed up too suddenly if a car moves out from in front of me. Again, this action is quick and requires very little thought or effort. The car is more than happy to comply and instantly show me the set speed. Without thought, my following distance is set to 7, the conservative tolerance I last (and almost always) used. But wait, that’s the second New Jersey driver to cut me off. Better take the half a second to turn my stalk and decrease my following distance a bit.

When that formerly infuriating stretch of congestion is over and we’re ready to go faster, I flick that same stalk up a few times. Small flicks give me 1 mph increments, a medium flick gives me 5 mph increments. You become quite used to the required pressure after only a few uses and it becomes as intuitive as brushing your teeth. I also turn my stalk to bump back up my following distance to a 7 because at higher speeds, that is where I am comfortable.

Before I can even enjoy moving or the sound of the elevated subway train rolling beside me, I remember that the road markings are about to go haywire. The old lines are still visible and new, solid lines cross them in an unnatural fashion to direct cars away from temporary walls. When following another car, Autopilot rarely misses a beat. It is both willing and able to figure out where it’s supposed to go but my own comfort level desires some intervention. At this point, my casual grip on the wheel increases just a touch and I gently provide some resistance. By now, my muscles know exactly how much pressure is required to get that sweet chime letting me know I’ve disengaged Autosteer. My screen confirms my desires: TACC is still engaged. The car happily hands over the steering reigns while keeping speed.

Just a short distance later, when the lane markings are clear again, I wish to give up steering responsibilities once again. Another gentle double pull of the stalk toward me and the chime tells me “I’m back.” Glance, flick, increase speed.

Sadly, the fun is short-lived. It’s time to move into my exit lane, which is questionably narrow due to the construction and has no painted lines on the right side; no shoulder, just wall. As a result, I desire to take back full control and without much thought, tap the break pedal ever so gently. Another chime awaits and my brain makes both my hands and right foot act accordingly.

In what amounts to a few miles and 20 minutes, I’ve gone from AP set at a medium speed to AP set higher, to TACC only, back to AP, then into manual mode. All of these transitions are seamless, quick, intuitive and easy. I control which features I want the car to handle and which features I want to control myself. My brain appeases my changing desires and also seamlessly transitions from no hands and no feet to hands only to both.

In reality, it’s two quick pulls to engage AP in full. One quick extra resistance application on the steering wheel to make it just TACC. One quick tap on the brake to disable whatever it is that is on at the moment (TACC alone or AP.) Want to change the speed limit? Give a light or medium flick for 1 or 5 mph increments. It’s just seamless integration for a situation where you are constantly engaged, constantly in control, constantly deciding and changing how much you want the car to do for you as well as what you want it to do. I’m paying close attention and without even thinking, I’m controlling the whole process.

Everything is already intuitive but once you really use it just a couple of times, you no longer need to try to think about it. In addition, It’s not as one-dimensional as ‘Oh the car is steering for me, hooray!’ I’m letting it do the parts of my driving that I want it to do, for the conditions I think are appropriate. That’s something to really be proud of. That and I’d like to give special mention to how great TACC is on its own, since its moment in the spotlight was short lived when big bro AP was born.

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