Tesla Autopilot and City Driving Explained

Tesla Autopilot and City Driving Explained

Now that Tesla has become one of the most popular electric vehicle companies globally, attention has focused on its Autopilot. While many people understand its function on the highway, its role in driving around the city may be a bit murky. It is important to understand how Autopilot functions when the car is moving in an urban environment.

While Autopilot features are currently designed for highway driving, they are increasingly becoming available on city streets. The increased density of city streets makes some of the features more difficult to manage. Still, Autopilot has proven itself to be a reliable assistant to drivers in an urban environment.

When considering how to use Autopilot on city streets, one must consider many things. City streets tend to be full of obstacles. There are pedestrians, bicyclists, dogs, and so much more to be concerned about. Continue reading to learn how Autopilot can be used with city driving. 

Autopilot Updates and City Driving

Tesla is in a continual upgrade mode of its Autopilot system. This is made possible because all of the technology available for fully self-driving capabilities have been installed on all Tesla models dating back to 2016. As refinements are made to the system, all that has to occur is a simple software update that is pushed through automatically.

The following updates have recently occurred that apply directly to city driving. 

  • Autosteer on city streets – Staying in your lane on city streets is critically important, particularly during times of dense traffic. The new autosteer feature aims to ensure that drifting into another lane is not going to happen. 
  • Traffic light and stop sign control functionality – The new system will sense when a stop sign or traffic light is coming up. When enabled, Autopilot will begin to apply the brakes in sufficient time to come to a complete stop, while taking into account traffic in front of the car at the same time. 
  • Automatic lane changes on city streets – Changing lanes on city streets can be a frustrating and stressful experience. This is especially true when you are trying to position yourself in the proper lane in time to make an upcoming turn. This upgraded feature will enable lane changes to take place on your behalf. 

In addition to these features, Tesla continues to work on its full suite of self-driving features. This would be a major step forward for the company, but it is still a work in progress. The self-driving software must still undergo millions of hours of testing and then receive regulatory approval. That being said, progress is being made. 

Active Safety Features That Work in the City

Since some of the features on Autopilot do work without driver interference, the line can seem muddied between what is possible and what is not when it comes to city driving. The key thing to remember is that a driver must always be involved in the process even if Autopilot is enabled. This is what will make city driving a much easier and less stressful experience. 

Autopilot has the following features that, when enabled, can be used on city streets. 

Automatic Emergency Braking

City driving comes with many more obstacles that drivers must be aware of at all times. It is often challenging to take everything in at once. Something or someone can come in the path of your vehicle at any time. If this happens, Autopilot will sense it and apply the brakes automatically if you do not. 

This system works thanks to the many sensors that are now installed on Tesla vehicles. If Autopilot notices an object that is going to make an impact with your car, it will begin to take corrective action. For example, it will notify the driver and start to apply the brakes right away. This has turned into quite a useful feature when driving on city streets.

Front Collision Warning

With so many cars driving on city streets at any given time, it is often difficult to notice when one up ahead will pose a problem. For example, a car might slow down without using its brakes. If you think that it is going at full speed, you will catch up much more quickly than you thought you would.

This situation has the potential to cause a front collision. Thanks to the sensors that Autopilot has use of all over a Tesla, the system can sense right away when a car has slowed down and may create an imminent hazard. As a result, a warning signal will alert the driver that he or she may need to slow down. 

It is important to note that this system does not take corrective action on behalf of the driver. It is meant as a warning signal. Simply applying the brakes might not be enough. The driver may need to make a split-second decision to change lanes, brakes, or accelerate through a troubling situation. However, Autopilot is an early-alert system that can help prevent an accident.

Side Collision Warning

There is so much that can come at a car from the side, particularly when driving in the city. Lane changes need to take place; people are walking, balls are flying, and so much more. All of these have the potential to cause a collision. 

When there is a threat of a side collision, Autopilot will immediately inform the driver. However, because that threat can come in many forms, the corrective action that the driver needs to take will differ in each situation. This is yet another reason why the driver needs to maintain control over the vehicle.

The side collision warning system will indicate which side the threat is on. The driver can then:

  • Brake to let a moving object pass by
  • Cancel a lane change that is in progress
  • Speed up to get away from the threat

These are just three of the many possibilities that can take place in an instant. Driving in the city requires the type of intuitive action that humans can provide. Unfortunately, at the current time, it is not always possible for Autopilot to get out of every situation that is thrown at it.

Obstacle Aware Acceleration

This is yet another safety feature that can come in handy during city driving. If an obstacle is detected in front of the car, the acceleration process will stop. This will slow down the vehicle accordingly.

Obstacle aware acceleration typically works best when traveling at a relatively slow speed. An example of this is just leaving a stop sign or red light. Perhaps the coast appears to be clear, yet an obstacle comes into the picture just after starting your acceleration. The system will sense this and start to slow the car down. 

While drivers can override this safety feature, the deceleration process will start automatically on behalf of the driver. This is because there is not much time to get there. Many of the obstacles that occur are not seen right away by the driver. However, the sensors on the car can often spot a potential obstacle in front of the car that is as far away as 250 meters. 

Blind Spot Monitoring

This is probably one of the best and most appreciated safety features that have been developed in recent years. Ask a driver what scares them the most about city driving, and many will say not knowing what is in their blind spot. This is the area around the car that a driver cannot see, no matter how hard they try. 

Even with advances in mirror technology and design, there are still times when a driver cannot see a certain area right outside the car. This can cause a problem when changing lanes or getting ready to turn. Thankfully, Autopilot is now able to monitor the blind spot for the driver continually. 

With blind spot monitoring in effect, the driver is sent a warning if they indicate that they are about to changes lanes when an obstacle is in the way. That signal often makes the difference between a possible collision and smooth sailing. Drivers have time to stop the lane change in plenty of time before encountering the object that is in their blind spot. 

Land Departure Avoidance

City driving can bring unexpected shifts in the way that lanes are designed. Unless a driver is paying very close attention, it is often quite easy to start to drift over into the next lane. As you are no doubt aware of, this is a recipe for disaster. With cars packed so closely together on city streets, there is often little to no room for error. 

The lane departure avoidance system is designed to keep drivers in their lane. It is an active safety feature in that the driver will be given a gentle nudge anytime the car starts to move outside of its own lane. An exception to this is when the turn signal is engaged, at which time other safety features will come into effect. 

This feature is another example of how Autopilot works when driving in the city. There are many occasions when a car might move outside of its lane for a brief moment in time. If necessary, the driver can easily override the system by ignoring the nudge they feel on the steering wheel. Otherwise, that nudge is often just the wake-up call that the driver needs. 

Emergency Lane Departure Avoidance

One other safety feature that has been designed with safety in mind is the emergency lane departure avoidance system. This feature kicks in when the lane departure avoidance feature is ignored for whatever reason. If a car starts to drift into another lane where another car happens to be, the car will steer itself back into the original lane. 

This feature only enables in the event of an emergency. There are some very useful reasons why this system can help drivers avoid an accident. 

Driver distraction is a major reason why unsafe lane changes are made. Perhaps the driver has briefly fallen asleep, or a loud noise has startled them. Both of these can cause a sudden jerk of the steering wheel that can result in an improper and unsafe lane change. By steering the car back into the lane automatically, an accident can be avoided. 

Autopilot Features That Can Work in City Driving

The safety features just talked about are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Autopilot can do. Other features have proven quite useful as well. While much of Autopilot was designed to make highway driving easier, refinements have been made that take much of the stress out of city driving as well.

Here are a few Autopilot features that drivers will be able to make use of when maneuvering their Tesla around an urban environment as well. 

  • Navigate on Autopilot – This is probably the best known feature of Autopilot. Drivers type in their destination, and the system will determine the best route and help them get there. While meant for highway driving, this feature is also useful on city streets. Keep in mind that it will not work in very dense traffic, and drivers must confirm that they understand they are required to remain in control of the vehicle at all times.
  • Auto Lane Change – This feature works in conjunction with navigate. When it is determined that you need to change lanes, usually in order to get ready to make a turn and make it to your destination, Autopilot will get you ready to do so. Drivers can override this feature at any time. 
  • Autopark – This has turned into a useful feature when you are in a crowded parking lot with narrow spaces. You might need some assistance to get into such a tight spot. When this feature is enabled, you need to get in position, and then the car will do the rest. However, you need to be ready to override the system when necessary.
  • Summon – This is also useful in city driving. It works in parking lots. You will punch in our Tesla app or keychain that you need the car to come to you. If the system determines that it is safe to do so, the vehicle will come directly to you. However, it will not venture onto a city street in order to do so. 
  • Traffic and Stop Sign Control – Having undergone extensive testing, this feature is now enabled on Autopilot. When enabled, it will sense when the vehicle needs to stop due to an approaching stop sign or traffic light. You will notice the vehicle slowing down as it approaches the intersection. 

The critical thing to note is that Tesla is constantly working to improve Autopilot. This is still very much a work in progress, particularly when it comes to city driving. As long as drivers view this system as an assistant, the information provided can be invaluable.

Autopilot is meant to reduce the number of accidents on city streets noticeably. To that end, we can all be of support of such a system. 

Is it Illegal to Let Your Tesla Drive Itself?

While the goal of Tesla and its Autopilot might be to one day have a car that drives itself, it is not currently legal to do so. However, technically speaking, Tesla has designed Autopilot to do exactly that. The fully self-driving features are meant to one day allow for a vehicle that can go from one location to another independent of driver interaction.

However, that day has not yet arrived. The technology might be in the car, and the vehicle may even be able to perform certain actions without driver involvement, but the law is clear on this matter. No state in America allows for a vehicle to drive on city streets without a licensed driver behind the wheel. 

In order to prevent drivers from doing exactly that, many of the features on Autopilot require driver confirmation before they will perform an action. Since certain components of the system do not work in various situations, drivers need to be available to continue driving and ensure that safety is ensured at all times.

Autopilot is to be viewed as an assistant with eyes in the back and the sides of its head when driving on city streets. However, allowing it to drive on your behalf is a sure way to get in trouble with the law. 

There have been documented cases of people setting the navigate with Autopilot feature and then going to sleep in the back of the car. It does not end well. If caught, the fines are heavy, with possible jail time in certain jurisdictions. It is best to understand Autopilot’s limitations and follow the law in this regard at all times.


City driving is different than navigating the highway. There are many more obstacles, and the potential for accidents is higher. Because of this, Autopilot has developed some safety features that can provide a great deal of assistance to drivers today. At the same time, there are some limitations and drivers must always remain at the wheel of the car and in control.

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The articles here on ThatTeslaChannel.com are created by Greg, a Tesla vehicle and Tesla solar expert with nearly half a decade of hands-on experience. The information on this site is fact-checked and tested in-person to ensure the best possible level of accuracy.

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