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Hands-On Experience With Tesla Autopilot

by User Not Found | Nov 13, 2015

Tesla Motors recently hosted a test drive event at Chicheley Hall, UK, and so I took this opportunity to experience the Autopilot suite of semi-autonomous driving applications, derived from the recent 7.0 software upgrade. 

Tesla P70D

Unlike, the existing business model for selling ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System) features, Tesla charged consumers $2,500 to download the relevant software needed to activate Autopilot on their vehicles, which were already fitted with the necessary cameras and radar.

The recent Autopilot applications include:

  • Traffic-Aware Cruise Control – where the Tesla vehicle can automatically maintain a set speed on the highway and Autosteer with the curve in the road.In a traffic jam, it can also follow the vehicle in front at low speed.
  • Auto Lane Change – where the Tesla vehicle can automatically perform a lane change maneuver just by activating the turn indicators.
  • Automatic Emergency Steering – where the Tesla vehicle automatically steers away from an impending collision.

As the first, “beta” release of Autopilot, these applications are not regarded to be fully-functional, as testament to the number of videos that have been posted by consumers on the internet.  

Regarding the semi-autonomous capabilities, I was able to test the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control on a two-lane highway.   However, due to the poor lane and road edge markings around Milton Keynes, the front windshield camera could not receive the level of data needed to perform Auto Lane Change. 

The Autopilot is the result of software and hardware development at Tesla’s headquarters in Fremont, California.  I was told by Tesla engineers that the system runs on a Unix-based operating system; however detailed information on Autopilot has not been released as freely as it has for Tesla’s electric powertrain technologies.  Nevertheless, the hardware required for Autopilot includes a monocular camera (stereoscopic cameras will also be used in future models), a long range radar supplied by Bosch, as well as ultrasonic sensors for park assist and short-range detection.

Tesla camera

It was noted that the automatic steering in the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control was operated smoothly, but I was told that my hands should be kept close to the steering wheel in case Autopilot was disabled or that the windshield camera failed to detect the correct lane markings.  European legislation recommends that hands must be kept on the steering wheel at all times for safety reasons, whereas US law is somewhat more relaxed regarding this matter.  In Japan, Tesla is currently applying for its release and is not sure if the Japanese government will allow the use of Autopilot due to bureaucracy.  The accompanying engineer told me that Autopilot cannot currently be recommended for driving on roundabouts (traffic circles), which are numerous in Milton Keynes.

Tesla Bosch Radar

The key HMI functions for the Autopilot reside in the cluster and steering wheel controls, rather than the Tesla’s trademark 17-inch infotainment screen.  I found the interactive dashboard easy to use and very responsive to the data that the car received from external sensors (e.g. data for the lanes, if there is a car in front of us, the speed limit, and data from the front and rear ultrasonic sensors).

I was told that in the UK, there are two main providers that support Internet connections to the Model S - O2 and EE, with two SIM cards both embedded inside the infotainment system.  This service is offered free-of-charge to the consumer for the first 7 years.  Both the touchscreen and the dashboard are running on the NVIDIA Tegra X1 SoC that is embedded in the car, although I was surprised at some small lags in operating the touchscreen.  

It was explained that Tesla’s Gigafactory will host production not only for the batteries for the Model S and Model X, but it also for the smaller Model 3 when it goes into production hopefully after March 2016.  Production of the Model S and X could total 90,000 units in 2015 – with the new Model 3, Tesla believes that it can achieve 500,000 units by 2020.

Overall, my experience of the Autopilot was very favourable – although clearly some further tuning to UK roads (especially roundabouts!) would be beneficial.

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