Tesla's Autopilot System Is Easy To Use but Has a Critical Flaw
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Tesla’s active driving assistance suite, known as Autopilot, can control a car’s steering and speed without driver intervention. It’s designed to provide relief from manual driving on long stretches of highway.
Autopilot is part of the evolution of autonomous vehicle technology, but how well does it actually work? Consumer Reports (CR) has put Tesla’s system to the test, and the results are mixed.
How does Tesla’s Autopilot system work?
Driving assistance technology is designed to keep your car centred in its lane, and manage your speed by maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles. Tesla’s Autopilot can also change lanes; the driver just has to activate the turn signal.
This is not the same as a self-driving car, but Autopilot can be used on highways or in slow moving traffic to relieve driver fatigue. When driving assistance is engaged, you can remove your hands from the wheel, take your foot off the pedal, and relax (a little).
The driver must still be alert and ready to resume manual control when Autopilot turns off, or to react quickly to unexpected hazards.
What does Autopilot do well?
Consumer Reports recently delved into the driving assistance offered by 17 major auto brands including Tesla.
Tesla was ranked first in the "Capabilities and Performance" category, scoring 9 out of 10. Autopilot received high marks for its lane keeping assistance, which successfully stayed in the center of the lane at highway speeds. Autopilot also ranked first for "Ease of Use."
As explained by CR’s Kelly Funkhouser, "The best systems allow drivers to activate the steering and speed control independently so that drivers can decide exactly how much assistance they want to use, and only have a single lane keeping system that performs consistently."
Forcing a highway driver to navigate a complicated computer system is dangerous and other driving assistance systems, from BMW and Hyundai, are criticised for being overly complex.
What does Autopilot do poorly?
Driving assistance technology is not safe to use in areas which have lots of intersections, pedestrians, and unpredictable traffic patterns. For this reason, most of the systems tested by CR are restricted to highway use.
Tesla's, however, is capable of being operated through residential areas with only a single, center lane line. It had one of the worst scores, 2 out of 10, in the "Clear When Safe to Use" category.
Autopilot also scored badly for "Keeping the Driver Engaged," receiving 3 out of 10. When the system is no longer able to operate, Autopilot gives a loud beep before shutting off. There isn’t a lot of warning ahead of time that the driver will need to take over the wheel again.
Finally, Tesla’s system is criticised for how it handles driver input when Autopilot is turned on. For example, if you’re trying to steer around a pothole, you must apply an unusually large amount of torque to the wheel to overcome the lane keeping assistance. After the driver stops providing steering input, the Autopilot abruptly shuts off, rather than moving the car back into the center of the lane.
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Overall, Tesla ranked second in the CR study, just behind Cadillac’s Super Cruise system. This isn’t bad, but Tesla takes great pride in its cutting edge technology, so hopefully there will be improvements in the next Autopilot software update.
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