Model X Road Test: Tesla Autopilot 2.0
By Eric Walz
Recently, FutureCar was provided the opportunity to perform a real-world road test of Tesla's Model X SUV. Although the Model X has many features, FutureCar was especially interested in trying out Tesla's self-driving technology, Autopilot 2.0.
The Model X we drove was equipped with Tesla's latest version of its Autopilot (Autopilot 2.0) software. The hardware that makes up Tesla's self-driving Autopilot system includes a forward radar, a forward-facing camera, a high-precision digitally-controlled electric assist braking system, and 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors placed around the car.
Front Cameras and Radar
The forward-facing camera is located on the top windshield. The camera, combined with computer vision hardware supplied by Bosch, helps the Model X understand what obstacles are ahead. The camera functions as the "eyes" of the Model X. It enables the vehicle to detect traffic, pedestrians, road signs, lane markings, or anything else that might be in front of the vehicle. This information is then used to help the X drive itself.
The vehicle uses this hardware to maintain its position in a highway lane while traveling at the posted speed limit. It is important to note that Tesla's vehicles are programmed to drive the speed limit while in Autopilot mode. To engage the system, a two quick clicks towards you on the cruise control lever to the left of the steering immediately activates the Autopilot.
Once engaged, there is a icon on the dashboard that lets a driver know that the Autopilot mode is active. There is also an indicator that lets the driver know that Autopilot is available. On secondary roads, a driver can select adaptive cruise control, which will control the speed and acceleration of the Model X. For example, if you approach too close to a vehicle in front of you, your vehicle slows down automatically.
Tesla's Autopilot is Impressive
The Autopilot system is impressive. I have personally driven hundreds of miles in self-driving test vehicles that are being developed by other major technology companies. Tesla's autopilot performed much better at steering, braking, and accelerating then any others I have driven in. On the crowded 101 Freeway in California, the system engages instantly as soon as you pull the cruise control lever towards you. Once the Autopilot system is engaged, a driver basically does not have to do anything. Steering, braking, maintaining lane position, and acceleration are all controlled by the Autopilot.
To disengage Autopilot, you push the silver button on the end of the cruise control lever, push the stalk forward, or press the brake. You can also disable the Autosteer by just slightly moving the steering wheel.
Although some drivers not familiar with a system like this may have reservations about using Autopilot and trusting a vehicle to drive itself, The system worked perfectly during my drive. The Autopilot worked so well that I quickly gained confidence in its abilities while traveling on the busy 101 Freeway in California. It's almost a relief to have the Model X take over with Autopilot, knowing that the vehicle can drive itself and view the road better than a human, in most situations.
"Most situations" is a key phrase here. Although innovative, Tesla's autopilot is still a work in progress. There were several instances when a car was merging into traffic from an on-ramp on the right where the Model X did not react or slow down, and intervention was necessary. This was a bit unnerving. A human driver would have slowed down slightly to left the other driver merge in. However, Tesla's Autopilot completely ignored the situation. Luckily, to turn off the Autopilot a drive can tap the brake or accelerator, or touch the steering wheel and quickly take control over the vehicle.
The model X will even change lanes in Autopilot, simply by using the traditional turn signal lever left or right to make the desired lane change when safe to do so. In my experience, the Model X changed lanes perfectly. A driver also gets a sense of confidence knowing that the Model X's cameras and sensors provide the system with a 360 degree view around the vehicle. If another vehicle is too close on the adjacent lane, the maneuver will not take place, since the auto lane change feature will not work if other object is too close.
Autopilot Instills Driver Confidence
It is relief to know that the Model X has a better view of the road than you do, and you never have to glance over your shoulder to see if another vehicle is in your blind spot. Speaking of blind spot, the Model X has poor visibility out of the rear window and rather small side view mirrors. Normally this would be annoying oversight on a vehicle in this price range. However, having the Model X's camera and other sensors give the driver a little more confidence in everyday driving situations.
"The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car. What's more, you always have intuitive access to the information your car is using to inform its actions," Tesla said in a statement in October, 2015 when it first released Autopilot.
Hands on the Wheel
The Autopilot system is designed to sense if your hands are on the wheel using the data from the steering angle sensor. If a driver hasn't touched the steering wheel in awhile, it will alert you visually by flashing the dashboard display with audible alerts to take control. I encountered this situation several times while in Autopilot, and by touching the steering wheel, the warnings ceased. However, If you ignore the warnings the X will begin to slow itself down.
Tesla has continued to refine and enhance the Autopilot system since its features were first enabled in cars in October 2015, via an over-the-air software updates. Last year, Tesla introduced an update so that its vehicles can enter or exit parking spots without a driver in the vehicle, which the owner of the Model X proudly demonstrated when he summoned the Model X out from its parking spot using the keyfob.
I have driven in other self-driving cars, including being one of the first persons ever to successfully navigate down San Francisco's famously twisted Lombard Street in a self-driving car, with no human intervention. Self-driving technology has come a long way in just a few years. However, Tesla's Autopilot 2.0 was quite impressive, and overall, the system seems to be years ahead of the competition.
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