Tesla's Autopilot - Our View from the Median

I was going much too fast the morning the Autopilot failed.  Late to get to the airport, texting the Uber driver to let him know, head buried in my phone and then the next thing I knew, I was up on the grassy median on 494.  There was no warning from Elon Musk himself, or even my car for that matter, just the sickening feeling of being inches away from a major car crash.  Luckily, I was able to stabilize the car on the grass, avoid the concrete barrier, and guide my model S back to the highway.  I was still shaking when I got to the airport thirty minutes later, feeling fortunate to walk away unscathed.

Bet this lawnmower is faster than yours.

Bet this lawnmower is faster than yours.

I am a huge Tesla fan.  I'm like the Danielle Steel of Tesla owners, except she divorces (5) and I purchase (also five.)  Meanwhile, Tesla is like the John Madden franchise.  Every few months they come out with some new idea, feature, or more power. And just like a kid whose brother just got a new toy, the one I have suddenly just won't do. Time to trade up.

  1. Regular 85—hit a deer with that one—(Teslas are known for deer hits due to no engine noise)
  2. P85—more power, performance, better suspension
  3. P85D-all wheel drive
  4. P85D-rear facing seats and more safety features including the winter package
  5. 90D-Auto pilot and the next generation seats
Frickin' lasers, man.

Frickin' lasers, man.

The moment Alex showed me the Autopilot feature, I knew I had to have it.  Just wait for the two lights on the dashboard to illuminate—one for the laser guided cruise control and one for the steering—pull back on the stalk twice and that's it.  You are now driving hands free. To switch lanes, just pull on the stalk once and the car checks to make sure the lane is clear and then crosses over for you.  No fuss, no muss.  Sounds simple. Most of the time, it is.

The problem is, it doesn’t always work.  My visions of eating baguettes and Nutella in the back seat while “Tessie” drove me to work were just that. Visions. My dream of bringing my pillow and taking a nap on the way into Minneapolis so I was well rested for the day ahead will remain a dream.

Of course, nobody ever said my Tesla would do those things, I just really, really hoped it would. Like how you hope for a hole-in-one on the tee box of every par 3.  Besides, we've all seen the videos of the family dog driving the car, the guy playing trumpet on the way to work and so forth. A guy can dream, right?

So, what does Autopilot really do?

For the most part, it's an amazing piece of technology.  It's great on the highway, especially in traffic.  It is a godsend on the morning commute when traffic crawls along so slowly you want to rip your eyelids off and spend the rest of the day looking completely surprised. It's also great on a long road trip when you want to take a mental break from continually focusing on speed and lane changes.  I find that I am far more relaxed when I get to the office.  The car does most of the work and handles the traffic for you.

Here's what I've learned about getting the most out of Autopilot.  Stay in the middle laneif possible.  The system does not do a great job of assessing traffic merging onto the freeway from your right and you end up either shutting it off, or merging into the left lane anyway.  It works best on straight well marked roads.  The more curves you face, the more it “checks in,” with you to make sure you're still there.  Avoid using it in construction zones, and side streets.  It will not stop at a stoplight unless the car in front of you does.  It will not make you a latte, or even give you a massage(Attn. Elon—call Audi-they make awesome massaging seats)

However, compared to anything else on the market (I'm talking to you BMW 7 series) it blows it away.  It is truly a miraculous achievement.  It monitors the road and traffic all around the car, keeps you a perfect (adjustable) distance behind the car in front of you, and truly drives itself down the freeway.

I still love to see people’s reactions when I have both hands behind my head while I am “driving” down the road, or reading the newspaper at 75mph.

(Of course I'm kidding)

The best way to describe Autopilot is to compare it to my 15 year-old Graces’ driving ability.  For the most part she does a great job, but every once in a while after you barely avoid an accident, you wonder what happened.  At times, Tessie is far too close to the car in the lane beside it, too close to the middle of the road on a two lane highway, wiggles uncontrollably in between lane markings, or brakes too late and too hard.  For those of you with children who drive, that should sound familiar.

Teenage autopilot

Teenage autopilot

In a nutshell, there is a reason that a driver's permit requires parental supervision. And there's a reason that when supervising your child with a driver's permit, you keep your eyes open and stay engaged. Treat Autopilot the same way.

At the end of the day, it's still very cool technology.  It's a game changer in the car industry and I look forward to checking out Volvo’s new S90 next month to see how it compares.  I rarely use it now, unless I am stuck in traffic, because guess what?

I would still rather DRIVE my car then be a passenger.

Oh. And Tesla? It's time for something new. I need an excuse to pick up Tesla #6.