We're cruising on the freeway, 70 miles an hour on the open road. It's a lovely day with puffy clouds in a blue sky above rolling green hills - nice scenery to look at as we wind our way north towards Oregon. We're able to enjoy the scenery because "Otto Pilot" is steering. With clear white lines marking the edges of the roadway, and yellow lines down the center, it means our Tesla Model X can lock in on those features (among others) - and drive itself!
Whoa! "Drive itself," you ask? It freaked us out, too, but once we tried it - and got more used to it - we both came to appreciate the "autosteer" feature built into this, and other Tesla vehicles. It is weird to let go of the wheel and let the car take over. But it tracks right down the center of the lane, easily following the curves in the road, sensing nearby vehicles, and adjusting its speed if someone ahead of us slows down. When you want to change lanes, a click of the turn signal is all it takes. The vehicle safely moves into the next lane when the coast is clear - by itself!
A super cool thing about Tesla is that it collects real-time data from all its vehicles on the roadways. A fellow we met during our road trip likened it to the Borg Collective (for those of you Star Trek, Next Gen fans!). Data from each individual vehicle is sent back to Tesla where it is analyzed, and incorporated into upgrades to enhance safety. Like the Borg, Tesla is the collective intelligence comprising all individuals linked into a hive mind. Unlike the Borg, Tesla is not evil!
For Tesla it means that they get realtime data feedback from the Tesla fleet, ensuring that the system is continually learning and improving upon itself.
But, you ask, just how does the car drive itself?
Tesla's hardware & software allow for evolving self-driving technology: a forward radar, a forward-looking camera, a dozen long-range ultrasonic sensors positioned to sense 16 feet around the car in every direction at all speeds, and a high-precision digitally-controlled electric assist braking system make up the system. This combined suite of features, Tesla notes, represents the only fully integrated autopilot system involving four different feedback modules: camera, radar, ultrasonics, and GPS.
Check out this video of Tom driving hands-free, with Otto Pilot in command!
When you're flying on a commercial airliner, the pilot often engages autopilot. Tesla's autopilot (or autosteer) works similar to the systems that pilots use when conditions allow. And like airline pilots, we're still fully aware that we are responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the vehicle. Tesla has designed a safety feature to remind us of that: every third minute, the car makes an audible chime and a message pops onto the dash telling us to hold the wheel. The car needs to feel a bit of tension on the steering wheel so that it knows you are still there.
Once, when we were on a clear stretch of road with Beth driving about 50 mph, we did a test: when the message came up, she touched the wheel, but didn't provide tension. The car didn't sense her! It chimed again, more insistently, and once more asked the driver to hold the wheel. Beth again lightly touched the wheel and, as before, the car didn't sense her. We were amazed what it did next!
The car began to slow down. It put it's hazard flashers on and, sensing all around to make sure it was clear of other vehicles, it moved out of the lane of moving traffic! Can you imagine if, say, you fell asleep at the wheel? Or had a medical issue that incapacitated you? The car realizes the driver is not in control and automatically moves into a safe position - and stops. We are astounded by Tesla's commitment to safety.
Autopilot is still in Beta. Self-driving vehicles are not fully here yet. But Tesla's autopilot, which continues to learn and evolve with real-time input, is getting there. It is so nice to be able to enjoy the scenery while Otto pilots our futuristic Model X relieving some of the tedium, and danger, from the drive!
** We have our hands completely off the wheel in these photos & video for illustration purposes. When we are in autopilot mode, we typically sit with our hands resting lightly on the wheel so we retain contact & control.