Seemingly, one of the most controversial things about Tesla cars is its Autopilot feature, a driver-assist feature that helps drivers navigate and pilot their vehicle. Oddly, while news of exciting Autopilot features comes out regularly, general information about exactly what Autopilot is, what the options are, and what it can and cannot do seem to be few and far between.
I have tried to collect and answer the biggest questions about Autopilot below to help prospective buyers know what the system is and is not, as well as to inform journalists about the system in case they find themselves trying to cover a news story regarding the system. (Spoiler: You can’t really drive a Tesla on Autopilot while sleeping!) When the next questionable news story comes out, please feel free to link this article for anyone wondering about the system.
Please note that all of the below information refers to Tesla vehicles containing Autopilot 2.0 hardware or higher in them (vehicles built since October of 2016). Although, the majority of the information will apply to all Tesla vehicles that are Autopilot enabled.
So, with that, lets get to the facts:
What is Autopilot?
According to Tesla’s Autopilot page:
Autopilot advanced safety and convenience features are designed to assist you with the most burdensome parts of driving. Autopilot introduces new features and improves existing functionality to make your Tesla safer and more capable over time.
Autopilot enables your car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane.
Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.
In non-Tesla speak, Autopilot assists the driver in controlling the vehicle.
Why the name Autopilot?
Before Tesla started using the Autopilot name, people had often heard of it being used in airplanes. The FAA, in a publication about Automated Flight Control from 2014 (pdf), defined autopilot in airplanes as:
An autopilot can be capable of many very time intensive tasks, helping the pilot focus on the overall status of the aircraft and flight. Good use of an autopilot helps automate the process of guiding and controlling the aircraft.
In the same publication, under the How To Use an Autopilot Function section, it even states that pilots need to…
Be ready to fly the aircraft manually to ensure proper course/clearance tracking in case of autopilot failure or misprogramming.
It turns out that this is a nearly perfect definition of what Autopilot does in Tesla cars. When engaged, Autopilot maintains the car’s position in its lane by steering and adjusting its speed so the driver can focus on the overall status of the vehicle and its surroundings. Drivers are instructed to keep their hands on the wheel at all times every single time that they engage Tesla Autopilot.
Why do people think the car can drive itself?
The most intensive task for a driver is maintaining the car’s lane while driving. At all times when driving a car without a driver assist feature, the driver needs to ensure that the car is in the correct position and moving at the correct speed, the only exception being times that cruise control is engaged.
Tesla Autopilot removes the need for the driver to do this so they can monitor vehicles around them better, road conditions, and anything else that may come up. It still requires the driver paying attention, and being ready to take over.
But due to this, it’s common for Tesla owners to explain to others in the simplest way possible that the car is “driving itself,” because the car is taking over the most intensive task.
How do you engage Tesla Autopilot?
To turn on Tesla Autopilot in a Model 3, press down on the right control stalk twice quickly when Autopilot is ready to be engaged. In a Model S or Model X, pull the lower right stalk down toward yourself twice.
Autopilot will show itself as ready to be engaged when the screen displays a small steering wheel icon on it.
If Autopilot engages, the car will create a two-note chime that informs the driver that it is working, the screen will note that Autopilot is engaged and you must keep your hands on the wheel, and a steering wheel icon on the dashboard will turn blue indicating that the system is engaged.
What happens if you don’t keep your hands on the wheel?
In Autopilot 2.0, after about 45 seconds, the car will put up a note on the screen that it has not been able to detect you and you need to move the wheel. After about 15 more seconds, it will start to flash a warning on the screen. After 15 more seconds, the system will beep loudly, including turning down the radio if it is on. Finally, after about 1:30 seconds total, the car will sound the alarm, flash a large “take over” sign on the screen, and slow the car down while turning on its hazard lights in its lane as it carefully comes to a complete stop.
Additionally, once the driver has taken back over, Autopilot will be disabled for the rest of that trip.
Note that, as of when I am writing this article, a driver can continue driving using Autopilot at this point by depressing the accelerator. However, if the accelerator is depressed while driving on Autopilot, the vehicle will not brake or maintain distance automatically.
How are people falling asleep in Tesla cars with Autopilot on?
In short, with the above active driver monitoring system in place, it is extremely improbable that anyone is falling asleep with Autopilot on for any extended period of time. Instead, these reports are almost definitely created by people either attempting to play pranks on surrounding drivers, or looking for attention. Hopefully, this is obviously an extremely stupid idea and not many people will do it.
As an aside, if a driver had something happen that made them unable to control their vehicle, I would much rather have them have that happen with Autopilot on so the car would come to a stop and signal others that there was a problem, instead of departing its lane and endangering others around it at a high rate of speed.
How can you turn Tesla Autopilot off?
There are three different ways to immediately turn Tesla Autopilot off:
- Twist the wheel to the left or right slightly
- Press the brake pedal
- Press up on the right control stalk
Note that when Autopilot turns off, it will signal the driver via two audible tones.
Is Autopilot Perfect?
It is not.
This is why the driver must be ready to take over control of the vehicle at any time, a statement the car notes every time that Autopilot is engaged.
Perhaps the most common problem is phantom braking, where the car suddenly starts to decelerate while driving for seemingly no reason. While I do not profess to understand all of the reasons for this, I have noticed this is often due to errors in the GPS map speed limits, and is most likely to happen at points where two roads may pass over or under one another, or where construction has recently been done and maps may not have been adjusted fully to reflect the standard speed limit. An attentive driver can press the accelerator to continue driving at the desired speeds when this happens.
The other problem the system can have is detecting stationary objects in front of it, which is a job that drivers should be monitoring for while Autopilot is engaged.
Note that many other problems — such as the car misreading the lane markers at an intersection and attempting to drive into an oncoming lane of traffic — are almost always in situations that Tesla is clear that Autopilot is not designed to handle yet.
Is Autopilot Safe?
Tesla publishes a quarterly Vehicle Safety Report on its Autopilot system, attempting to show how many issues it has in a given quarter. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions on where Autopilot can be activated, it is often driving what would be considered the safest type of driving possible, so it is impossible to know how much better Autopilot is than standard drivers under similar circumstances. Additionally, while the data show that Tesla drivers get into accidents in general at a rate less than half the average accident rate in the United States, it is difficult to prove that is specifically due to the car itself.
What many Tesla owners will say is that by removing the driver-intensive tasks, Autopilot tends to allow the driver to stay more alert and aware of their surroundings.
On a personal basis, I was able to stop a minivan from hitting me in my driver-side quarter panel in busy traffic because I was able to trust Autopilot would maintain my lane and distance while I looked back to see what the driver was doing. I was able see the driver rolling into me while they stared down at their phone, and I was able to honk to get their attention and make them stop — an action I would not have been able to do safely in a car without Autopilot engaged.
Wasn’t there an accident while someone was driving with Autopilot engaged?
There have been a few accidents with Tesla vehicles that have had Autopilot engaged, and sadly some of those accidents have been fatal. In seemingly every case, the driver of those vehicles had engaged Autopilot and was not monitoring their vehicle, based on the frequency of the vehicle warnings and lack of response.
Had these drivers been monitoring their vehicle appropriately, there is a good chance these accidents would not have occurred.
What can I adjust on Autopilot?
Other than turning the system on an off, you can set the speed by turning the right scroll wheel on the steering wheel, and the distance between vehicles by moving that same scroll wheel to the right or left while driving. Other Autopilot settings are found in the Autopilot menu, and can be set when parked before the driver is moving and saved to their driver settings, which the car saves and keeps between sessions.
Can Autopilot be used in construction zones?
In general, so long as the lanes are clearly marked, Autopilot will continue to navigate through construction zones without incident. However, the system will display a message that construction is detected and the system may be limited. Autopilot may have difficulty in construction zones if there are multiple lane markers or partially removed lane markers, strange lane merges, or obstructions in the road.
Can Autopilot be used in inclement weather?
In general, so long as the vehicle’s camera’s can sense the lane markers, Autopilot will continue to navigate during inclement weather, however the system will display a message that inclement weather has been detected and the system may be limited.
In extremely heavy rain, the Autopilot system may have trouble finding lane markers. In situations where snow covers the road, including all lane markings, Autopilot may have difficulty determining where the roads are. In both of these cases, the vehicle may not allow Autopilot to be engaged.
As my own personal rule of thumb, you should try to avoid driving in both of the above situations at all costs. If you must, I believe that Autopilot can be helpful if you are able to engage it in heavy rains, as it tends to identify the road markers better than I can with the exception of large turns. On the flip side, in heavy snow I believe that Autopilot is best left off, as a sudden lack of road markers can lead to undesirable erratic behavior on a difficult surface. In regular rain, drizzle or light snow, I have had no issues with Autopilot. That’s just my experience, however.
If you at any time feel uncomfortable with Autopilot and how it is behaving due to the current driving circumstances, I strongly suggest you stop using it immediately, and resume when circumstances change to be more favorable.
What other features are in Autopilot?
The above paragraphs explain the functionality of a Tesla with the standard Autopilot package, which Tesla has included in all of their cars sold since April 11, 2019. Before that point, the Autopilot option that drivers purchased was called Enhanced Autopilot, which included some features not included with the base Autopilot feature. As of the writing of this article, Tesla vehicles with Autopilot 2.0 or higher hardware sold before April 11, 2019 with Enhanced Autopilot and all Tesla vehicles with the Full Self Driving feature include the following features:
- Navigate on Autopilot — The vehicle will change lanes to overtake slower cars and take off ramps to follow a route.
- Auto Lane Change — The driver can also activate the lane change feature when using standard Autopilot.
- Summon — The vehicle is able to be driven slowly forward or backwards in using the Tesla phone app when the driver is nearby without being in the car (useful for pulling the car into or out of a garage).
- Auto Park — The vehicle will parallel or perpendicularly park by itself.
Additional features and functionality are expected to be added to these packages in the future.
Should I get Full Self Driving?
The answer to this question varies from owner to owner. Currently, Full Self Driving is an additional $6,000 upgrade above the price of the built in Autopilot functionality, while those who purchased a vehicle with the Enhanced Autopilot package are given a different price. The price can be seen by logging into your Tesla account and checking.
Tesla has stated that cars that do not contain their internally designed Hardware 3 CPU will get an upgrade to that CPU once the features for cars with Full Self Driving have begun to diverge from those with just Autopilot. As of the writing of this article, that has not yet begun. Vehicles purchased with Enhanced Autopilot currently will not gain any features by opting for the Full Self Driving functionality.
Personally, I feel it is difficult to justify the price of Full Self Driving based on the above features. However, as additional features are added to the system, I believe that it will become easier to justify. If the vehicles are able to become fully autonomous in the future as Tesla hopes, the price of Full Self Driving would be an incredible bargain at today’s pricing. There is no timeline on exactly when this will be, however.
It is also worth noting that the price of Full Self Driving is expected to increase in the future as features are added.
Didn’t Elon Musk say Tesla vehicles would be able to drive themselves by the end of the year?
This is a common misunderstanding due to Elon Musk using a software term when discussing his perceived progress on the Full Self Driving program. Musk stated that Tesla expects that Full Self Driving will be “feature complete” by the end of 2019.
To non-software engineers, that statement sounds like Tesla expects their vehicles will be fully autonomous by the end of the year. It is important to note that software engineers declare that a program is “feature complete” when it has all of the primary functionality added to the final product and it is ready for testing. When software becomes “feature complete,” it generally means that the development team feels that it has reached the end of its alpha (or first) stage of development.
Additional stages of development usually include beta, release candidates, and then gold. The beta stage is generally used to stress test the software to locate and eliminate bugs and enhance performance. While Autopilot in general has been in Tesla vehicles for over three years, it has been stated that it is in Beta, and Tesla continues to add features and functionality to it as they feel confident in wide release testing of those features and functionality.
Finally, it is worth noting that Tesla releases updates when they feel that they are ready for a wide release, and not when the update is “feature complete.” When this article is being written, Tesla has been testing “Enhanced Summon” in their test fleet (a very limited amount of vehicles), a new update that allows cars to pull out of a parking spot and navigate to a predetermined spot within that parking lot autonomously. Enhanced Summon has been “feature complete” since at least early April of 2019 when the first videos of vehicles testing it were seen.
How are additional features and functionality updated?
Tesla vehicles update themselves via over-the-air firmware updates on a semi-regular basis. Updates that are installed add features and inform the driver how to use those features. For instance, Navigate on Autopilot was first made widely available on October 26, 2018.
Updates are automatically downloaded to the vehicle, and the vehicle owner approves when the update can be installed. Most updates take between 15–30 minutes to install.
Vehicle updates are included for free with the purchase of a Tesla vehicle. On average, updates for vehicles happen roughly every two weeks.
What does the infotainment screen show in Autopilot?
The infotainment system displays a visual representation of the vehicle’s understanding of the world around it. Interestingly, Tesla explained at some point (I believe it was during their Autonomy Day Event) that the visual representation is a method to make the driver feel more confident in what the system currently sees, and that the system is separate than the system that is actually functionally driving the vehicle.
Is it unsafe to look at the monitor or make driving adjustments on the infotainment screen?
This is mostly in reference to the Model 3, and has nothing to do with Autopilot, but seems to come up when demonstrating Autopilot regularly.
Since the car links to a driver profile when you get in, it adjusts the seat settings, side mirrors, steering wheel, temperature, vent direction and speed, and driver settings all to what that driver prefers as soon as you press the brake pedal to shift the car into gear. Additionally, the vehicles monitors and automatically turns on the windshield wipers and headlights. Because of this, the driver rarely needs to change any settings while they are driving.
Why do surrounding vehicle at stoplights often “dance” when stopped at an intersection?
Tesla has never explained exactly what causes this, but from having watched all of the information from the Tesla Autonomy Day and reading other statements Tesla has made about Autopilot, I believe that the following is the most likely explanation:
The Autopilot computers use multiple computers to detect and draw other vehicles in 3D during driving. In the underlying system, those vehicles are treated as boxes, which the Autopilot system then displays a 3D model based on the type of vehicle that the system is detecting. When the vehicle is in motion, and the cameras and Autopilot system can determine the direct and speed of surrounding vehicles, it is very easy to determine which way those vehicles are moving using parallax between the cameras. When the Tesla vehicle is stopped among other stopped vehicles, the system no longer can use parallax to determine the direction and position surrounding vehicles are pointing in. The system may makes adjustments to the position of those surrounding vehicles as it tries to interpret the data it is receiving, which may cause the surrounding vehicles to appear to “dance” or shake or wobble.
If this is incorrect, maybe all the surrounding vehicles are just really happy to see a Tesla, so they took to dancing and the vehicles computer is actually displaying the other car’s excitement visually (hey, this is a long FAQ, I deserve one joke, right?).
The important takeaway here, however, is that this issue appears to be completely separate from Autopilot functionality. Additionally, system updates have improved vehicle visualization in the past, so this problem will probably disappear with time.
Anything else I should know?
This article was written on September 12th, 2019. As Autopilot is an ever-changing feature on Tesla cars, portions of this article — generally expected to be on feature descriptions, functionality, and current pricing — may be rendered out of date by subsequent updates.
Finally, if you made it this far, I figure it’s worth adding my brief personal opinion on Autopilot.
When I ordered my Model 3, Enhanced Autopilot was an additional cost of I believe $5,000. I had a significant debate before placing my order, as I hated Cruise Control systems and would refuse to use them in my prior vehicles — my belief has always been that if something terrible happens and I lose the ability to control the vehicle, Cruise Control will guarantee I hit something at full speed, and that was enough for me to pretty much never use it. I figured my experience with Autopilot would be a similar experience, but one that I was about to pay thousands for.
To make a long story short, I am amazed by how much I love Autopilot and I use is regularly. I am certain that it has made me a better driver by allowing me to look around my car and observe other drivers that I would have otherwise not been able to do, like in my example above where I honked at a van that was going to hit me from behind, a situation I’m positive that I would not have been able to recognize without Autopilot.
As an ex-programmer, and from having watched the entirety of Tesla’s Autonomy Day to write an article for this site, I feel that I understand the method that Tesla is using to attempt to turn Autopilot into a fully autonomous car in the future. The pace of updates for the vehicle — I have received 23 updates in the 49 weeks I’ve owned the car — seems frustratingly slow at any particular moment, but the advancement has actually been quite incredible during that time. When I received the car, it could only see up to three lanes total, and just a little in front the car for each lane. Today, it can see six lanes, and Navigate on Autopilot along with the Auto Lane Change feature becomes better with each iteration. I’ve noticed, in particular, my car has become much more confident in lane changes with the last update. When I step back and realize what has been changed since last year, it’s stunning the advancements it’s made.
One year ago today, I was extremely skeptical and pretty sure that I had made the wrong decision in deciding to spend the money for Autopilot. Today, I can’t imagine ever buying another car without it. Used properly, I am certain it is well worth the money I spent and then some for the safety it has brought me.
The biggest benefit that I feel that Autopilot has is that it removes the fatigue from lane keeping and spacing. In the past, I would find it hard to concentrate on driving when I was at all tired. With Autopilot, I find that I can stay alert so much easier as car helps with the mundane tasks. I arrive at locations feeling more alert than I used to, and the stress of driving long distances in particular is practically entirely removed.
Did I miss something? Tell me below!