Tesla Autopilot in Traffic: What to Expect

Tesla Autopilot in Traffic: What to Expect

There’s been a lot of hype in the news about Tesla’s Autopilot system and how the company is leading the way in self-driving cars. Unfortunately, there have also been some highly publicized wrecks involving the use of Autopilot. So how reliable and safe is Tesla Autopilot really?

In traffic, Tesla Autopilot is good at handling basic semi-autonomous driving functions such as lane changes, autosteering, and emergency braking to avoid obstacle collision. However, road tests have shown that the Autopilot function is not reliable enough to be trusted without a manual operator.

Even though Tesla’s self-driving capability isn’t quite to the point that you can let your car take over, there are still plenty of interesting and exclusive features included as part of the Autopilot experience. Read on to learn more about how Tesla’s Autopilot functions in traffic and what you can expect when you drive one yourself.

Is Tesla Autopilot Hands-Free?

The first question that most people have about Tesla Autopilot is about whether the car can be operated hands-free or not. We hate to disappoint anyone who thought they might be able to let their car take over all of the driving, but Tesla Autopilot only operates at a Level 2 of semi-autonomy. So what does that mean for how Tesla Autopilot works in traffic?

In short, this means that there will always have to be a driver in the driver’s seat of any Tesla model whether it has Autopilot or not. The Autopilot feature is not reliable enough to be depended on without a human operator ready to take over at a moment’s notice if the autopilot makes a miscalculation.

Tesla Autopilot is not a hands-free system. Despite initial predictions and reports, Tesla has quickly backtracked any marketing that claims its Autopilot to be a hands-free system, especially in the wake of Tesla car wrecks where the driver was not in the driver’s seat. However, it does have plenty of other features that make it worth investing in.

Tesla Autopilot vs. Full Self-Driving Capability

It’s easy to get Tesla Autopilot and its Full Self-Driving Capability features mixed up, but these are actually two different levels of autonomy.

The Tesla Autopilot that comes standard with contemporary Tesla vehicles only has a few of the Autopilot system’s most basic features, while the more advanced autopilot commands are locked behind a systems upgrade called Full Self-Driving.

Next we’ll go into further detail on what features define the difference between basic Tesla Autopilot and Tesla’s Full Self-Driving option.

What Features Are Part of Tesla Autopilot?

While Tesla Autopilot is included standard in all new Tesla models, the features that constitute the Autopilot part of the self-driving suite are the most basic features in it. Here are the capabilities you can expect if you go with the standard Tesla Autopilot in traffic (Source: Tesla):

  • Traffic-Aware Cruise Control: Traffic-aware cruise control matches the speed of your cruise control to the flow of traffic using external sensors on the vehicle to judge the speed and proximity of other vehicles. Traffic-aware cruise control can be used in traffic to make commuting less stressful. It’s also a good way to use less energy while driving.

  • Autosteer: The Autosteer feature in Tesla’s Autopilot allows it to make lane corrections based on road markings and other visual cues picked up by the car’s cameras and sensors. While Autosteer can make driving much simpler, it is also not perfect and may not keep lanes corrected if it can’t detect the lane dividers on worn roadways. 

These two features are useful in traffic, and drivers can expect to take advantage of them often if you drive your Tesla on the freeway. But the real value in Tesla’s self-driving capabilities comes with its Full Self-Driving upgrade.

What Features Are Part of Tesla Full Self-Driving?

Full Self-Driving in Tesla’s design includes the features of Tesla Autopilot along with several additional features that make the self-driving suite more comprehensive. While Full Self-Driving doesn’t actually upgrade the Tesla to a fully autonomous vehicle, it does simplify many of the tasks associated with driving.

Here are the features you can expect to get with Tesla Full Self-Driving capability:

  • Summon and Smart Summon: The Summon and Smart Summon features allow a Tesla vehicle to extract itself from a parking lot and find its owner valet-style. Smart Summon is an upgrade on the original Summon functionality that increases a Tesla vehicle’s ability to maneuver and navigate around obstacles in a parking lot.

  • Autopark: The Autopark feature allows the Tesla vehicle to automatically parallel park or perpendicular park without needing the adjustments of a manual operator. This function comes in especially handy in tight parking situations where human error could cause some damage to surrounding vehicles.

  • Automatic Lane Changes: Automatic lane changes work together with the Autosteer feature to help Tesla vehicles smoothly transition into new lanes without driver input. The car’s system does this by anticipating the movement of other vehicles in traffic and merging safely around obstacles.

  • Traffic Sign Control: Traffic sign control is how the Tesla Autopilot suite recognizes traffic signals and signs on the road. Using this input, the automated driving system can decelerate and brake for stop signs and traffic lights. This relatively new aspect of Tesla’s autopilot is becoming more accurate every day as more drivers enable it.

  • Navigate: The Navigate function is Tesla’s driving guidance system that helps assist the driver in finding safe lane changes, getting on and off ramps on the freeway, and automatically engaging the turn signal before turning automatically during autosteer. Navigate also includes GPS directions for destination routes and potential detours.

  • City Streets Autosteer: The newest version of Autosteer functionality in Tesla’s Autopilot can navigate vehicles down more complicated city and residential streets. This makes Tesla’s self-driving features as effective in close-quarters traffic as they are on the open highway.

Even though Tesla’s Full Self-Driving upgrade doesn’t convert the vehicle into an autonomous one, it is probably the closest the market has seen to a fully self-driving car.

Tesla has indicated that it intends to be the first company on the electric vehicle market to put out a fully autonomous vehicle. Investing in self-driving technology now guarantees access to Tesla’s self-driving upgrades later. Given how much more sophisticated Tesla’s AI has become over the eight years it’s been operational, self-driving will only continue to get better and safer.

How to Activate Tesla Autopilot in Traffic

The methods for activating Tesla’s Autopilot features depend on which sub-feature you’re trying to use. The reason it’s important to know how to activate Tesla’s Autopilot functions in traffic is because many of these functions are disabled by default in the Tesla’s systems for safety. This means they have to be activated manually.

Here’s a brief breakdown on how to activate Tesla’s different Autopilot features in traffic (Source: Pocket-Lint):

  • Autopilot: Autopilot is activated through Tesla’s main menu under the Settings option. After agreeing to maintain manual control over the vehicle during autopilot, the car’s self-driving features will be active and ready to use.
  • Summon and Smart Summon: Summon and Smart Summon are both activated through the Tesla application on your smart device. After choosing either Summon or Smart Summon in the menu, select Come to Me to call your vehicle.

  • Autopark: The option to autopark engages naturally whenever you begin to initiate parking in a nearby parking space that your vehicle’s system recognizes. To use it, simply shift into reverse, put your feet on the brakes, and select Start Autopark to initiate the autopark sequence. Autopark is overridden by grabbing the steering wheel.

  • Automatic Lane Changes: Automatic lane changes are controlled through the Autopilot menu. Here, automatic lane changes can be either activated or disabled by toggling it.

  • Traffic Sign Control: Traffic sign control recognition capabilities can only be activated while the vehicle is in Park. Once the vehicle is parked, access the Autopilot menu through Tesla’s main menu and select Controls, then select Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control (Beta). Doing so will activate traffic sign control in traffic.

  • Navigate: Navigate can only be activated in the Tesla Autopilot system once Autosteer has been activated. Once it has, you can activate Navigate from the main Autopilot menu and select your destination to set navigational guidance.

Once the autopilot controls on your Tesla are set through the system menu, the self-driving features of the vehicle basically handle themselves. In traffic, the car will control most basic functions while the driver monitors operations and navigation.

Advantages of Tesla’s Autopilot in Traffic

So now you have an idea of how Tesla’s Autopilot features operate in traffic and what your responsibilities are as the driver when you’re operating the car under autopilot. But why would you want a car with self-driving capabilities to begin with?

There are many benefits to using a car’s self-driving features in traffic. Here are just a few of the reasons why you should consider investing in a Tesla with full self-driving autopilot (Source: Coalition for Future Mobility):

  • Autopilot leads to fewer wrecks. While there have been a handful of highly publicized wrecks involving automated Teslas, science has shown that automated vehicles across the board are massively safer than vehicles operated by human drivers. Autopilot doesn’t fall asleep behind the wheel, doesn’t get drunk, and doesn’t get distracted.

  • Autopilot can lead to more efficiency on the road. Using cruise control and other automated self-serving functions, Tesla owners can get more range out of their cars between charges. This efficiency is achieved by cutting back on unnecessary braking, acceleration, and lane changes.

  • Autopilot saves money. By helping drivers avoid unnecessary wrecks, drivers also get to avoid related medical bills, car repair deductibles, transportation fees, and other costs related to damaging their car.

  • Autopilot can increase productivity and leisure time. While self-driving cars haven’t reached the level of autonomy that would make drivers completely obsolete, that day is not far off. Once cars reach full autonomy on the road, former drivers will be free to focus on other activities in the car’s cabin such as reading a book or taking notes.

  • Autopilot is the wave of the future. In just a few short years, Tesla’s autopilot AI has become the most sophisticated self-serving car network in the world. This system is set up to only become more precise and more powerful as the technology in self-serving cars accelerates.

If you’re thinking about buying a self-driving car, there’s never been a better time to jump on the bandwagon. Current self-driving cars are only semi-autonomous, but they still offer plenty of safety and relaxation to the driver compared to conventional manual vehicles.

Disadvantages of Tesla’s Autopilot in Traffic

Even though there are many benefits of purchasing a Tesla with self-driving capability, there are a few disadvantages of Tesla’s Autopilot features as they stand right now. These are a few of the drawbacks you’ll need to keep in mind when purchasing a Tesla:

  • Full self-driving capability is expensive. While standard Autopilot with traffic-aware cruise control and Autosteer comes stock on all new Tesla models, the option for full self-driving capability costs an additional ten thousand dollars. This may be a dealbreaker for Tesla owners on a budget.

  • Autopilot still needs a driver. Even though the Autopilot program in Tesla is billed as “self-driving capability”, the car will always need a driver to have their hands on the wheel to take control if they need to.

  • Autopilot can potentially lead to a loss of privacy. The same technology that Tesla uses to operate and monitor self-driving systems also allows the company to track your movements through your vehicle. For some people, this is a loss of privacy they’d rather not endure just for the convenience of autopilot.

Tesla’s Autopilot is still new technology, which means there are still a few kinks to work out here and there. It’s also not cheap technology at this point in history. However, getting in on the ground floor with Tesla’s self-driving capabilities allows you to see the growth of artificial intelligence in automotive technology firsthand.

How to Test Tesla’s Autopilot Before Purchase

If you’re not sure whether you’d be comfortable using Tesla’s Autopilot features enough to drive one of them every day, there’s a way for you to check out the features in traffic before purchase so you know what to expect.

To get a chance to test Tesla’s Autopilot, all you need to do is locate your nearest Tesla dealership and ask for a test drive as well as a tour of the vehicle’s autopilot features. As long as you have a valid driver’s license and call ahead to schedule your test drive, you should be able to see all of the Tesla’s different Autopilot features at work.

Is Driving with Tesla Autopilot Legal?

Driving with Tesla’s Autopilot features engaged is legal. Only three states and Washington D.C. have enacted any laws regarding the use of self-driving car functions. While most state legislation doesn’t specify that a car operator has to have their hands on the wheel to operate it, most do have laws that there must be a driver behind the wheel at all times.

For its part, Tesla also encourages this standard for their drivers. When engaging Autopilot, the car specifically directs the driver to remain seated behind the wheel and to remain in full operational control of the vehicle at all times.

Is Full Self-Driving Worth the Extra Money?

Since standard Autopilot is already included in all new Tesla models, some consumers may wonder whether it’s worth the extra ten thousand dollars to invest in Tesla’s Full Self-Driving upgrade. But there are several reasons why you might consider splurging on this option for your new Tesla. Here are just a few of them:

  • Much higher functionality than Autopilot: Full Self-Driving features six additional functions on top of the two autopilot features included in the stock option (Autosteer and Traffic-Aware Cruise Control). This means you get four times as much self-driving functionality out of the upgraded system.

  • Free remote upgrades: One of the best things about Tesla’s AI is that the more drivers and vehicles use it, the more efficient and effective it becomes in traffic by learning traffic patterns. Each Tesla driver with Full Self-Driving can take advantage of these new upgrades for features such as traffic sign recognition and city-based autosteer.

  • Robust technical support: While an AI-based self-driving network might seem intimidating, Tesla has friendly customer support available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to help you handle any technical issues you might have with your self-driving features.

Drivers on a tight budget might be tempted to pass on the Full Self-Driving option since it is quite expensive, but those who decide to splurge on it instead will appreciate it.

Tesla Autopilot Makes Traffic a Breeze

Even though the technology isn’t perfect yet, Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving functions are the most advanced on the market today. By using Tesla’s automated features, drivers are able to reduce their chance of a wreck by 100%. (Source: Motor Hills)

For those drivers who want an AI co-pilot to help them avoid fender benders in traffic, Tesla’s Autopilot system is well worth the extra cost.


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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