Like it or not, driverless cars are coming. Manufacturers are competing with various trials of autonomous vehicles around the world, with lots of debate about who will actually bring the first one to market.
But then, in one fell swoop, Tesla’s launched a software update that essentially allows the Model S to drive itself. And there are people out there, in the UK, who have downloaded the latest 7.0 software and now own a driverless car and can use it on the roads. Sort of.
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You might have detected a bit of hesitation. Tesla is keen to point out that this isn’t an entirely autonomous car. Autopilot is still very much going through the Beta stage – meaning drivers are being used as guinea pigs to try out the system, and will be feeding information back to the manufacturer.
It’s not yet advanced enough to work around town. The system can’t detect oncoming cars and relies on white lines on both sides of your lane to keep you heading in the right direction.
So what can Tesla’s Autopilot do?
For the moment, it’s best suited to motorway use. Join the motorway, set the adaptive cruise control and let the Tesla use its sensors at the front of the car to keep you moving with the flow of the traffic. It’s clever stuff but nothing groundbreaking – adaptive cruise control is getting increasingly commonplace on premium cars.
Other sensors, meanwhile, detect the white lines on the motorway and control the steering to keep you in your lane. This is more impressive – but still, not overly new. Volkswagen’s Lane Assist, for example, detects when you’re about to unintentionally leave you lane and nudges the steering.
But these kind of systems usually get pretty shirty pretty quickly if you take your hands off the steering wheel. VW’s system, for example, will alert the driver within 10 seconds if it detects you’ve taken your hands off the wheel.
The Tesla, however, is happy for you to take advantage of its Autosteer for longer periods. In fact, you can cruise for up to 10 minutes on the motorway before having to put your hands briefly on the steering wheel.
But can it change lanes?
Things get more impressive when you want to change lanes. As it is, the Tesla will stay in the lane it’s in, speeding up and slowing down with the traffic, until you tell it to do otherwise.
You do this simply by indicating towards the lane you wish to be in. Its sensors look around and make sure it’s happy to move there – if it detects a vehicle approaching or thinks it’s dangerous to move across, it’ll stay where it is.
When it’s happy, the Model S will change lanes. But there’s an issue. Legislation in Europe means you have to have your hands on the steering wheel while it does so. You’re not actually doing anything – you can hold the wheel very lightly, but allowing it to change lanes on its own is getting a little too close to entirely-autonomous cars than lawmakers would like. In the USA, it can do it without your hands touching the wheel.
— Andrew Brady (@MR_AndrewBrady) November 6, 2015
Any other clever tricks?
Also as part of the Autopilot system, the Tesla Model S can now parallel park itself. Again, this isn’t particularly new – many manufacturers offer similar systems. But most manufacturers require you to control the pedals. In the Tesla, once it detects a suitable parking space, you simply have to stop the car and press a button for it to slot itself in the gap. You don’t have to do anything.
It works pretty well, too. Systems like this are often a little ropey – abandoning the car too far from the kerb or struggling to park as well as a human could (and often that’s not particularly well at all). But, when we tried it, the Tesla slotted itself into a fairly tight space in no time at all, sticking into the road no more than the cars alongside it.
What next for the autonomous Tesla?
Anyone with a Model S, apart from the very earliest in the UK, has the hardware and can simply download the software update to enjoy the benefits of Autopilot. But it’s not cheap. If you’ve already got a Model S without the feature, it’ll cost £2,500 to add it. Buyers of new cars can have it straight away for £2,100.
That sounds a lot of money for a feature which is restricted by regulations and offers little more than Lane Assist. But it is currently in Beta mode, and we’re excited by what it means for the future. Unlike most cars, if you buy a Tesla, it isn’t instantly out of date as soon as a newer version is introduced.
No, you’ll be able to take advantages of updates coming in the future. And if Tesla can manage to get the car so close to being autonomous already, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s coming a few years down the lane. It’ll get more competent at tackling motorways. Legislators will be under pressure to be more flexible in their approach to autonomous cars. When you’ve had a passenger ride in a Tesla driving itself down the motorway, it’s easy to imagine that cars will be making their own way through city centres within a few years.