First exposure - autopilot in town

Going for a Drive around the city with my silicon friend in charge

3y ago


Unless you already own a Tesla, you probably haven't had a chance to drive around with Autopilot yet. I was in that group until last week, at which point my generous friend let me putter around town in his black-on-black Model X P100D. Yes, we puttered, just rather rapidly.

In its current incarnation Autopilot is not really intended for around-town use, but getting the car into self-driving mode is disconcertingly easy. In my town, almost all of the roads are pretty wide and very well marked, so there is almost no instance that the car is not able to track the lanes accurately. Because of that, you can initiate Autopilot almost anywhere, with that simple double-pull of the stalk. Once you hear the bong noise and after a brief internal moment of "ok I think I am mentally prepared for this" you simply remove all appendages from the controls and let the car take over.

That initial few seconds is where it all goes goofy, as your brain, which is used to years or decades of always being in full control, struggles to allow the car to do the work. I kept my hands cautiously over the wheel and my foot prepared to jump up to the brake pedal, but after a few moments I started to relax and realize that the car is doing fine. We were driving in pretty heavy traffic on 45mph city streets, and while the first time you let it come to stop and not hit the car in front of you is somewhat terrifying, after that the mind settles and you start to let your attention wander ever-so-slightly. I am generally a techie-nerdy type of person so I actually found the process of monitoring the car utterly fascinating. Watching the dash display and tracking the cars around you is quite immersive and in some ways actually had me paying MORE attention than I might in normal driving.

The Model X carved nicely down the lane, keeping so close to center that I don't think most people would be able to replicate it, even when the road curves or other cars insert themselves into your path. The only time that Autopilot struggled while in town was when the car traveled through super-wide intersections where the lane markings obviously went away. In those instances, the car wavered a bit before it got far enough through that it started to track the lanes again. I had to correct it once with a quick jab of steering, so it's definitely not a "set it and forget it" procedure, you still need to be mentally present.

Speaking of steering, the sensation of the car handling the wheel is precisely like the feeling in a force-feedback video game steering wheel. I've played a fair number of driving sims and the Model X wheel feels just like a high-end gaming rig. When in Autopilot you can disengage the system by giving the wheel a few degrees of rotation, during which it fights you for a moment and then you feel the feedback turn off. Quite interesting and intuitive; you "get it" very quickly and it feels oddly natural.

My wife was riding in the back with my children and later commented that as a passenger, she really didn't know if the car was doing the driving, or I was. That's quite high praise for a system so new.

A week after my test drive I found myself on a 7-hour road trip with my family in my ICE vehicle, and that brief 20-minute experience with Autopilot had me seriously wishing that my car had even a rudimentary traffic-aware cruise control. Just letting the car handle the long monotonous freeway parts would have made the trip so much more relaxing and enjoyable.

I'm a driver at heart, I've raced cars and have put a lot of time and effort into learning how to be a better driver, but letting the car do some of the work, a car that will never let its attention waver and can "see" far better than I ever could, is very appealing and I am looking forward to when my Tesla arrives in the driveway so that my journeys can be both safer and more relaxing. Bring on the future!

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