I deliberately kept my original statement about autopilot short, here’s the book I always wanted to write.
The plot synopsis (TL;DR): Autopilot is not full self driving. It works wonderfully at lightening the load on the driver, but it is vitally important that the driver remain aware of the situation and be the one making decisions at all times. Sort of like autopilot in an airplane.
Let me start by saying I already have done thousands of miles of driving with autopilot, so I’m very used to what it does, how it reacts, and when I need to override it.
For all of the complaints below, most of the time I would go long stretches without having to do anything. I watched the road and other traffic, but the car drove itself for 10s of minutes at a time with absolutely no interaction from me. I know that is not how autopilot is portrayed in the press or on Twitter, but it is exactly how it supposed to work in Tesla’s documentation. It is not a feature that lets you take a nap, play a video game, or watch a show while driving. The most transgressive thing I did was remove both hands from the wheel for seconds at a time to open or close my drink.
I interact with autopilot a lot. The vast majority of these interactions are changing the set speed, followed by telling it to change lanes. Far fewer are unexpectedly being forced to take control, as opposed to when I expect to take control, such as exiting a freeway.
Typical interactions would be approaching a slower car from behind, signalling to move left which directs autopilot to change lanes, and then a bit later signalling to move back to the right.
Other very common interactions would be adjusting the speed up or down as conditions change. For example, dropping the speed when entering a town. In these rural Texas small towns it’s important to be going 35 at the 35 sign, so I would lower the speed before autopilot would do it automatically. With my settings, it does not automatically raise the speed, so I did that manually, too.
The few times I had to take control were really minor things, not emergencies. For example, sometimes I would want to change lanes in a town, and autopilot didn’t want to do that. Other times a two lane road would add a passing lane, and autopilot would want to stay to the left, and then didn’t want to change lanes to the right, requiring me to take over.
The worst annoyances with autopilot were data and mapping issues. A brief digression: on non-freeway roads, autopilot will not exceed 5 mph above the posted speed limit. On some of these roads the map data was wrong, and would have the speed limit as 55 when it was posted at 75. The car is supposed to read signs, but sometimes it missed a sign or something. In these cases I could use cruise control, but not full autopilot.
Some of the drive was in heavy rain, and autopilot performed great. The visual lane tracking stuff works incredibly well. Those are also circumstances where I adjusted the autopilot to drive at a speed appropriate to conditions, and increased the following distance.
The autopilot never scared me, but that’s because I know it likes to brake a bit late for stopped traffic, and stuff. In one instance my passengers got upset, but that was due to sudden evasive braking, rather than autopilot doing something stupid. While I was going 65, somebody crossed the road in front of us. Autopilot handled the situation. I was aware of what was happening, and deliberately let autopilot take action, because the passengers were with me to see how autopilot worked. I saw the car was starting to cross the road and if I had been driving I would have decelerated more gently, because I predicted the other car’s behavior prior to autopilot seeing an obstacle and taking action. (I was ready to take over if autopilot didn’t brake, and I’d pre-checked that there was nobody behind me as soon as I knew what was going to happen.)