While the Tesla Autopilot has been here for a few years now, many have begun to wonder when it will actually drive itself. Right now, humans must still do the driving, with the Autopilot serving the role as informed assistant. However, don’t get us wrong, as this is one assistant that you will be more than happy to have at your side.
We don’t know when the Autopilot will be able to legally drive itself. While that capability may exist, with the necessary technology, there are many regulations still in place that require humans to be in control at all times. Some people never want to see the human equation removed from driving.
As we consider the various functions of the Autopilot, it is helpful to compare them with the capabilities and limitations of humans. That will help us to determine if the world will ever even be ready for a fully self-driving vehicle in the first place. Continue reading to learn more about the comparisons of the Tesla Autopilot versus humans.
What Can Humans Do That Autopilot Cannot?
Humans have long been limited in terms of what they can see and how quickly they can process information. That has always put them at a perceived disadvantage when driving. Many things are happening all at once when operating a motorized vehicle. Humans cannot possibly take in all of them.
At the same time, humans are uniquely positioned to be able to react and take control when necessary. As this post will recount, there are many useful features contained with the Autopilot, but none of them come with the human instinct that is often necessary to determine the difference between accident and avoidance.
What Does Autopilot Do for Humans?
Autopilot is designed to take much of the pressure off of humans. There is a reason that many car manufacturers label these as driver assistance features. They are meant to be an aid to the driving experience, but not to replace it. While many may wonder when the Autpilot will actually take over the driving for humans, that day has not yet arrived.
When recounting what the Autopilot does for humans, it is necessary to begin with a statement of what it cannot do. Autopilot does not drive itself. Humans are required to be at the helm all the time. No government in the world has fully taken the keys to the driving kingdom away from humans.
When it comes to Tesla, there are two different packages available to help humans arrive at the safest possible driving experience.
- Full Self-Driving Features
These items must be paid for, but most Tesla owners opt to have them available because of their usefulness. Humans cannot see every angle outside the vehicle at the same time, but Autopilot can. That is simply too good of an offer to pass up.
There are some things that Autopilot will do for humans right off the bat. These include the following:
- Steering to correct lane swerving
- Braking to ensure stop sign and traffic light signals are observed
- Accelerate to keep up with traffic at an appropriate speed
These are just three examples of what Autopilot can do for humans. At the same time, humans must always be in the driver’s seat and can override anything that Autopilot attempts to do in real time. If the car starts to speed up when the driver is not comfortable with it doing so, the brakes can instantly be applied, and the process reversed.
Check Out These Features That Humans Cannot Replicate
Humans have limitations. These can potentially be disastrous when driving, which is why so many accidents continue to happen on every type of road and in every type of traffic situation. Autopilot aims to overcome those limitations by providing technological tools such as the following:
- Cameras – These are not your ordinary cameras. They have 360-degree angle vision, meaning they can see virtually everything that could possibly impact the car. Autopilot does not just have one of these either. There are a total of eight cameras strategically located around each Tesla vehicle.
- Sensors – These are ultrasonic sensors, and they are able to identify objects that the human eye might not be able to see. They are constantly on the alert, and there are twelve of them on each Tesla model.
- Radar – As if the sensors and cameras were not enough, Autopilot also makes use of a forward-facing radar system that is revolutionary and state of the art. It will be able to determine if there are potentially harmful objects as far out as 250 meters, giving the driver plenty of time to take corrective action.
- Tools that process vision – The tools that Autopilot has in its arsenal enable it to constantly process data to plan out acceleration and braking patterns. It analyzes traffic flow in order to create an efficient and safe route.
- A built-in computer – This is a computer that humans can make use of. It constantly displays everything that Autopilot is seeing so that drivers can make informed decisions and give consent to the recommendations made by the system.
These tools are just the beginning. They never go to sleep. They are not distracted. In short, they are always performing the very functions that they were created to do. This is something that humans, try hard as they may, simply cannot do.
Can Autopilot Actually Drive?
On its own, Autopilot has two main features that are designed to work in conjunction with a human driver. These features are now available on every Tesla model on the road today, and it is continually being upgraded via software updates that can be automatically pushed to the car on demand.
The two main Autopilot features on the Tesla that make driving so much easier and safer are:
- Autosteer – Every driver has had those moments when they lose sight of the lane they are in. When that happens, the car can start to drift into an adjacent lane. That is obviously a recipe for disaster and usually results in the driver quickly correcting the mistake. In order to make the process even safer, Autosteer will automatically nudge the car back in the center of the lane where it belongs.
- Traffic-Aware Cruise Control – Cruise control has been a feature on cars for decades, but many drivers have shied away from using it. This is because cruise control is designed to keep your vehicle at a specific speed. When traffic becomes closer, the driver has to engage the brakes to slow down and then speed back up when the coast is clear. It can become more exhausting than simply driving on your own. Enter traffic-aware cruise control. This feature of Autopilot will automatically brake and accelerate for you on the highway as it senses the traffic pattern up ahead.
These two functions of Autopilot are really designed with safety in mind. They complement the driver by allowing for a short period of inattentiveness by compensating for a car that is either going too fast or too slow. However, it is important that the driver still remain involved at all times.
These systems are not perfect. There are times, for example, when Autosteer might not notice that a lane is gently curving to the right or the left. This is often the case on unmarked roads. If the car begins to autosteer in a direction that is actually not safe, then the human driver needs to take control and correct the action.
This is why many people believe there is no substitute for the human element when it comes to driving. It is helpful to have technology that compensates for those moments when we might not be as alert as we should, but it is also important that we have the final say.
Does Fully Self-Driving Mean the Car Will Drive Itself?
Even more features are associated with Autopilot that are designed to lead to a fully self-driving vehicle eventually. Will this happen? We do not know yet. Literally, millions of hours of testing have been conducted with these features at the helm, absent a human driver. Even so, it is still required that a licensed driver still maintain control when on the road today.
If humans want to use the following full self-driving features, they will need to first agree that they will maintain control over the vehicle at all times.
Using the Stop and Go in Traffic Feature
If you talk to anybody who has been driving for any length of time, they will tell you that there are occasions where they get lulled into a sense of complacency. This results in stop signs and traffic lights creeping up on them when they are not expecting them. Often, this means that a quick slamming on of the brakes is in order.
This is obviously not the best way for a human to drive, which is why Autopilot is now testing the capability to automatically brake and accelerate depending on the presence of stop signs and traffic lights.
If the sensor notices a stop sign up ahead, the car will automatically begin to apply the brakes depending on the speed and distance at the time. The same is true of an approaching traffic light. Depending on the color of the light, the car will compensate its speed accordingly until it determines if it can safely proceed through the intersection or if it needs to come to a complete stop.
One may argue that humans should easily be able to determine when to stop at an approaching intersection. This is true, which is why this function is meant to be an aid to drivers. However, the fear that many have is that drivers will begin to depend too heavily on it and not pay full attention when on open roads that may not have many stop signs or traffic signals.
Perhaps this is why the system is still in beta at the moment. It is another indication that Autopilot cannot really drive itself at the present moment.
Enabling the Navigation with Autopilot
Many would argue that this is the very feature that inspired Tesla to develop the Autopilot in the first place. It allows the driver to input a destination, and then the system will automatically determine the best route to go. Not only that, but it will interact with most of the other features of Autopilot to ensure that you get there as efficiently and as safely as possible.
Navigation with Autopilot is capable of doing the following that a human driver would typically be responsible for:
- It suggests lane changes throughout the journey.
- It will take care of getting through highway interchanges without ending up on the wrong highway.
- It turns on the indicator light when the car is about to switch lanes or turn.
- It will get the car in a position to exit the highway at the appropriate time.
It should be mentioned that all of these features are still in beta mode. However, when they all work effectively, one could make the case that humans no longer need to be behind the wheel. But, not so quick. We are likely a long way off from Autopilot actually driving the vehicle.
Navigate with Autopilot is designed to work mostly on the highway. This is because that is when it has time to determine the best route possible, analyze prevailing traffic patterns, and help drivers navigate traffic. Those long drives are made much easier when this Autopilot feature is enabled.
Because so much can happen while driving such long distances, drivers must still remain alert at all times. Just because the system is designed to pick out objects and obstacles along the way, does not mean that the unexpected won’t happen. A deer can dart out in the road, a traffic light can suddenly turn red, or a drunk driver can blow through an intersection.
While Navigate with Autopilot is designed to help a driver get through all of the situations mentioned before and then some, it is still not prudent to assume that the system can fully take care of itself. Technology can falter. When that happens, the human element takes over.
Using the Smart Summon Feature
This is one of the more advanced features now included with Autopilot. When enabled, it will appear as if the car is literally driving itself. But, keep in mind that a driver must remain involved in the process the entire time. In this way, it is once again worth pointing out that Autopilot is currently designed to complement the driving experience but not to take over.
If you are in a situation where it would be easier to get the car to come to you, the smart summon feature will do that for you. This could be useful in a congested parking lot where it might be difficult to make your way to the car. It might also be raining outside. You might be in a parking garage and not feel comfortable navigating the car out of its parking space on your own.
These are situations where the smart summon feature could potentially come in handy for you. This can be activated from your Tesla app or from your key. The system will automatically sense where you are and bring the car directly to you. Keep in mind that it only works in limited situations.
You cannot, for example, summon the car to come to pick you up at work. It is not going to get on the road and drive by itself. It is only meant to be used in parking lots where you are within a certain range of the car when it is summoned. If you are too far away or there are too many obstacles in the way, the system will be unavailable to you.
Using Autopilot to Change Lanes Automatically
Autopilot is also able to determine when it is time to change lanes. You might have an exit approaching. If you are several lanes away, the system will take into account how much traffic is on the road and be able to start moving you safely over to where the exit is going to occur. It works in conjunction with autosteer.
If you are not in the process of changing lanes, you need Autosteer enabled in order to make sure that you stay in the proper lane. While humans can do this on their own, this is a piece of technology that is much more efficient at doing so. It is important to have the extra set of eyes always scouring the road.
One of the best parts of this feature is that the car will not change lanes if there is another vehicle or object in the way. It takes the infamous blind spot out of the equation. There are times when accidents have been caused because a driver tries to change lanes when a car cannot be seen directly in the path. This function of Autopilot is designed to prevent that.
Using the Summon the Vehicle Function
Now we are getting to some of the features that will seem as if the car can drive itself without the involvement of a human. Imagine you need to get the car out of a tight parking spot. You might not even be able to get into the driver’s seat yourself.
This is where the summon feature will come in handy. It is a bit different than the smart summon feature. When you summon the car, it will move out of a tight parking spot so that you can then get in the driver’s seat and proceed safely on your way. This is a safer way to get your vehicle out of a tight spot while still maintaining control over the entire process.
Using Autopilot to Park the Car Automatically
This an interesting feature of Autopilot because it does not do exactly what it sounds like it will do. You will need to have the car right in front of a parking space that you wish to occupy. If the car senses that it can use Autopilot to park there, it will become available to you. However, it will make a series of corrections in order to get into the space, so you have to be ready to override it.
Autopilot can parallel or perpendicular park a vehicle. The system is engaged from the touchscreen display inside the vehicle. The driver needs to remain inside the car until the process is complete. There are mixed reviews on this feature, so it appears that it may still need some work. In the end, the human element still has not been removed from parking a vehicle.
What Does the Future Hold?
So, the question is, when will the Autopilot really drive? That is, after all, the ultimate goal. To be honest, the technology is now available for this to happen. However, it is not fully tested, and government regulations prevent the features from being fully enabled. Humans are still trusted more in this regard, even though self-driving cars produce fewer accidents overall.
What Can Autopilot Do That Humans Cannot?
This is the crux of the issue. There are certain things that humans simply cannot do when driving. For example, we can only see in one direction at a time. While we might look right and there is nothing there, by the time we look left and back right again something or somebody could have darted in the path.
This is why Autopilot has a series of sensors built into it that are designed to do what humans cannot. These sensors are capable of spotting potential problems as far away as 250 meters. That is pretty impressive no matter who you look at. The cameras included with Autopilot also always provide drivers with a 360-degree view of the vehicle’s surroundings.
With its impressive array of eight cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors, there is not much that an Autopilot enabled car cannot see. The following sub-sections detailed some of these features and why humans simply cannot replicate these functions.
Rearward Looking Side Cameras
These are cameras that are built into each side of the vehicle. Their only function is to look in reverse. Impressively, they are able to see up to 100 meters behind the vehicle. It is difficult for a human with perfect vision to even approach anywhere near that distance with any level of accuracy.
The system can also account for the objects in the rear as it navigates through lane changes and determines if there is the potential of a collision because of a vehicle moving too fast from behind. Once again, these are things that humans are not always able to do with any level of precision.
Wide Forward Camera
This is a camera that captures a wide-angle view of what is always happening in front of the vehicle. It can clearly see objects up to 60 meters away. The system will continually analyze these images and propose corrective actions to the driver if necessary.
Main Forward Camera
Drivers will appreciate this camera because it is constantly analyzing objects and vehicles that are right in front of the vehicle. Imagine a car up ahead with a broken taillight that is slowing down. The human eye may not catch this until it is too late, but the main forward camera will notice it right away. It can see objects up to 150 meters in front of the car.
Human drivers have a difficult time seeing what is immediately outside the vehicle. Unless we literally turn our heads out the window, there is no way to see what is there. Autopilot has humans beat in this area. The ultrasonic sensors that are placed throughout the vehicle can see up to 8 meters away in virtually every direction.
Comprehensive Radar System
If planes can use radars, why can’t cars as well? Tesla obviously thought the same, and this is why they have added radar to Autopilot. These are radio waves that are continually being sent out from the car. It can analyze data captured up to 160 meters in front of, behind, and to the side of the vehicle.
With radar, Autopilot can alert drivers of impending danger much more quickly than the naked eye can spot the threat. This can allow for corrective action to be taken and accidents avoided. Radar is also heavily relied upon with the self-driving feature. Again, that is not yet fully activated, but it may be one day.
When it comes to comparing Autopilot to human drivers, many things must be taken into consideration. The reality is that technology has made driving safer today than ever before in history. At the same time, it is difficult to remove human drivers from the equation without fearing disastrous consequences. For now, Autopilot cannot really drive, but the day may soon come when it can.