01 Feb What it feels like to drive a Tesla on autopilot
I was in the driver’s seat of the Tesla Model S, but I wasn’t really driving. My hands weren’t on the steering wheel. My feet weren’t on the pedals. Software and sensors were doing the real work. I had been reduced to a back-up system. I monitored the city traffic mostly out of habit. I changed lanes with a flick of the blinker, my blind spot checked for me and the Tesla deciding when to move on its own.
Then, the car in front of us slammed on its brakes. Boredom disappeared. Traffic went from 20 mph to zero in a flash. The very expensive nose of the signature red Tesla Model S P90D sedan was hurtling toward a Honda’s rear bumper. A collision was coming.
Normally, my foot would be pressing the brake by now. But this Tesla was in autopilot mode. And I wanted to trust it.
This $132,700 electric car is supposed to be able to drive itself in many situations – even a bit with no one in the vehicle at all. Just days earlier, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk had said his company wasn’t aware of any accidents while its thousands of vehicles were in autopilot mode. No accidents! I didn’t want to snap that streak. Musk also had insisted that autopilot, despite being unveiled only last October, was already probably better than human drivers. But only probably.
I felt a flush of panic. In the passenger seat, my wife covered her head in her hands.
I don’t like it. I don’t like it,” she said.
The Tesla slowed itself to a stop three feet from the Honda’s bumper, my foot still hovering nervously over the brake pedal. It then drove on like nothing happened.
The driverless future is coming. And Tesla’s autopilot provides the best glimpse of what that future might look like. How it might feel.
After several days of driving (if that’s the right word) Tesla’s autopilot in a range of conditions, including snow (where it struggled), it is clear both how stunningly advanced the technology already is and how much work remains.
Using it makes you both giddy and alarmed in one shot — because crashing software is very different from software crashing a car.