Tesla self-driving car.

The Tesla Model S P90D dashboard’s instrument cluster.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said recently that Tesla’s autonomous cars will be available to buy in just two years, Mvusi Ngubane wrote for LearnBonds, despite the fact that most companies developing and testing self-driving cars have given only vague predictions as to when those cars will be on the market. Musk said:

I think we have all the pieces, and it’s just about refining those pieces, putting them into place, and making sure they work across a huge number of environments — and then we’re done.

Taking Autopilot on the Road

Scott Collie, writing for Gizmag, recently tried out a Model S P90D in Melbourne, Australia, to find out what it’s like to drive in a Tesla with the Autopilot system taking control:

Under the right conditions, Autopilot will accelerate, brake and steer for the driver, provided you’ve got your hands on the wheel.

The Tesla’s Autopilot system depends on a radar unit and many long-range ultrasonic sensors and cameras to guide the vehicle. Collie found it unnerving to know that the technology was working behind the scenes with no way to really know what it was doing.

The dashboard’s instrument cluster shows an image of the car and a semblance of what it sees. The display shows vehicles in your lane as little Model S’s. As you drive and obstacles appear on the road, they also appear on the screen, as colorful lines around the edges of the icon representing the car you are in.

As he made the test drive, Collie metaphorically held his breath and turned on Autopilot, allowing it to take over the car for a while. He wrote:

As you’d expect, it’s completely unnatural when the car takes control. The driver’s display is quick to remind you to keep your hands on the wheel, but it’s more of a legal requirement than anything else, because in most situations the Model S handles itself perfectly competently.

Autonomous Ride ‘Almost Boring’

“Collie said he found the experience “almost boring.” The distance between his car and the one ahead never changed under Autopilot control. The steering wheel turned slightly with the curves of the road as the car made its way along the busy freeways near Melbourne. Sometimes the Tesla was caught off guard when it encountered lane markings it was not so familiar with. “As solid white lines around the edge of the freeway fade to open up for exits, Tesla’s system gets indecisive, halfway between exiting and keeping up with the flow of traffic,” he wrote.

Collie was not surprised that Tesla asks drivers to use Autopilot in the middle lanes of a highway since they must be ready to take control of the wheel at any time to prevent an accident should something go wrong.

Automatic Lane Change

Autopilot also has an automatic lane change program so that the person behind the wheel doesn’t have to take control in order to change lanes, or pass slow-moving vehicles. Collie called the automatic lane changing system exciting, but scary:

If the virtual driver controlling the steering wheel and speed is like a slightly nervous middle-aged driver, they become more like a 15-year-old taking their first drive on the highway when changing lanes.

During the test drive, Autopilot was not without some glitches. Collie said he couldn’t get it to work consistently, even when using it in the middle of a well-delineated freeway when there were no other cars nearby. For example, in a video of him behind the wheel, AutoPilot tried to change lanes into a curb, he said.

But, taking control back from Autopilot is as easy as touching the brakes or pulling the wheel. When you do take back the control, the system lets Tesla know why you did, so that the system will be tweaked to work better. Tesla’s Autopilot system is the closest thing out there to a self-driving car right now, Collie says in the video, which you can see below.

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