Tesla-Model-S-P90D

A Tesla Model S P90D. A similar vehicle, equipped with the Autopilot  driving system, was used in the road test.

Technology journalist Daniel Sparks recently wrote for The Motley Fool about his recent drive in a borrowed Tesla Model S to see how well its semi-autonomous Autopilot would handle itself on a highway.

In his drive from Monument, Colorado, to Colorado City, he wanted to see how far he could go without taking the wheel. The results were “shocking.” The planned 87-mile trip would include two- and three-lane highway driving, plus one or more construction zones.

Daniel-Sparks

Daniel Sparks

Despite his being on guard and ready to take over the wheel at any point, he said that the “Model S handled like a champ.” He did not have to steer or use the pedals at all, even in a 27-mile section in Colorado Springs, and he even changed lanes, by tapping a blinker instead of turning the wheel.

Sparks writes:

Other cars on the road would have never guessed it wasn’t a human driving. Model S slowed when slower vehicles cut in front of me, sped up when they moved, and accelerated with eerily human-like driving skills amid lane changes when passing vehicles. And it avoided off-ramps when I was in the right lane — even when there were no markings to separate my lane from the off-ramp.

Minimal Interaction

Other than tapping the blinker, the only actions he needed to take  were to adjust the cruise control speed every once in a while, and to lightly touch the steering wheel every five minutes to let the Tesla know he was alert. Sparks wound up ending the Autopilot short of his destination, on the south end of Pueblo, on a narrow curve, when a semi truck alongside the Tesla encroached into his lane. He grabbed the wheel at that point, not wanting to find out if the Model S would avoid a collision.

This blog wrote yesterday about a Google self-driving vehicle accident last month in a similar circumstance, in California, when a bus and the Google car moved to the same part of a right-hand lane at the same time. The Google car had moved to the center of that two-vehicle-width lane to avoid hitting some sand bags in the road. Its software was programmed to believe that the bus would yield to it, as the Google car was ahead on the road. Google’s human test-driver also believed the bus would yield, but it did not.

Self-Driving Cars Bound for Market?

Sparks thinks there is a good chance he would have made his trip all the way to Colorado City on Autopilot if it had not been for the semi:

Indeed, if a Tesla owner were to replicate a similar attempt with Autopilot, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first interruption they experienced would be because the driver needed to exit the highway to charge.

As a result of his experiment, Sparks thinks self-driving cars may come to market sooner than expected. He notes that Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said self-driving Teslas may be on the market within two or three years, if engineers have created better sensors by then.

Self-Driving Cars and Traffic

In an article last month in The Denver Post, Jon Murray wrote that self-driving cars could help relieve traffic congestion in Denver. He wrote that Douglas Rex, director of the Denver Regional Council of Governments’s Transportation Planning and Operations, confirmed that large tech-driven changes will indeed be coming to the area at some point.

Image by Zytonits, used under Creative Commons license.