Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot Is Smooth As Silk — CleanTechnica Review

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I don’t have much opportunity to use Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot since I seldom drive on the Interstate. (I’m eagerly awaiting “Navigate the City” or whatever the next iteration is!) However, I recently drove through Tampa, Clearwater, and cities in that vicinity for about 2 hours and had the chance to really spend some time using the beta Navigate on Autopilot feature. It’s a fascinating feature and the details of it go beyond what I realized before using it. I genuinely hate driving through Tampa, and the most concise takeaway of this whole experience is that Navigate on Autopilot definitely made that task safer, easier, and less stressful.

Before getting into the details of the system and this drive, the quick summary of the tech is that Navigate on Autopilot can basically take you from onramp to offramp without making you think or do much of anything. It will merge you onto the highway via the onramp and later off of the highway via the offramp. As you exit the highway, it will disengage automatically and make a special chiming sound to make sure you notice. Now let’s get into more specific details and some photos (which my wife took since I wanted to focus on driving).

Where Does It Work?

First of all, note that the navigation system shows you the segments of the trip where Navigate on Autopilot will function. You see the three green arrows in the screenshot above? (Of course you do.) You see the little steering wheel on the left of each of those steps? (Not so easy, eh?) That steering wheel symbol indicates where Navigate on Autopilot can do its magic. Beforehand and afterward, you’re in charge, buddy.

I didn’t notice those steering wheel symbols for a while, which is one reason I’m pointing them out here. I also feel like Tesla should actually require a driver to watch a video on Navigate on Autopilot before using it the first time. Better safe than sorry, and this is not the only part of the system that is not obvious right from the start.

Which Lane Should You Be In?

Earlier in the trip, while going through Tampa, I was in some horrible bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Interstate. (Have I mentioned that I hate driving through Tampa?) The lane I was in and the one on my left were especially clogged, whereas the 3 or 4 (or more) on my right were moving faster and a bit clearer. I thought that was just because there was a lane of traffic joining the Interstate at that point (via the lane left of mine). Navigate on Autopilot wasn’t telling me to change lanes to get around the slower traffic, which I assumed it would, so I just kicked myself out of Autopilot and did so myself. A couple moments later, I realized why Navigate on Autopilot didn’t tell me to change lanes — I needed to be in one of those left two lanes to stay on the highway I was supposed to stay on.

What I hadn’t noticed at the time but was happy to notice later is that the navigation system shows you which lanes go on the route you are supposed to be on. As you can see inside the green box above, 2 of the 3 lanes are bolded, which means they are fine to stay in.

This can be quite helpful, since there are often places on the Interstate where you can’t tell which lanes are fine for your route far in advance. With Navigate on Autopilot on, you don’t even have to think about it — just follow the system’s directions! Also, it will tell you it’s prepared to change lanes if that’s needed. By the way …

What Happens When You Need To Change Lanes?

By default, Navigate on Autopilot doesn’t yet change lanes by itself without checking with you first. The system is clearly being cautious, and that is a good thing. There is, however, an option to change this setting (see screenshots below) and allow the car to change lanes without your confirmation, but I haven’t yet tried it.

Using the default setting, when it’s time to change lanes, the navigation system pops up a light blue box that tells you a lane change is upcoming (see above). It also does this if someone slow is in front of you and it thinks you should pass the car. If you think the system is being illogical or you just have a different preference for some reason, you can just tap that button to cancel the plan.

This section has been updated, as has the bullet list at the bottom.

If you don’t cancel it, when the time comes, the touchscreen asks you to put on your turn signal to change lanes. If you don’t confirm the lane change, you just keep driving straight. (I didn’t test to see what would happen if I ignored the prompt until it was too late and I passed or was about to pass the necessary lane change or turn.)

Of course, the car’s self-driving system is not going to turn into another car. As you can see in the visualization above, it indicates when there’s a vehicle blocking the path by lighting that vehicle up in red. It will wait until the path is fully clear to make the lane change. Automatic lane change in such high-traffic situations is actually one of my favorite Autopilot/”Full Self Driving” features. While it might make you feel a little nervous — giving the car control in such a situation — the things to remember are that the car has far more eyes than you, it doesn’t lose focus on the task at hand and has all of those eyes fully focused on their areas of vision, and the car is really cautious. It also lets you free up attention to scan the environment more, since you know the self-driving tech will keep you in your appropriate lane the whole way. It’s really good at this.

Yes, you may have noticed we were going 1 mph at the time of this screenshot despite being on an Interstate highway. There was an accident ahead that had created some stop-and-go traffic. That’s also what helped my wife get a fairly clear photo despite the challenge in that lighting.

Exiting The Interstate

The system is super smooth in taking you off the Interstate via the offramp. The critical thing is just to notice when it’s doing so. There’s a special 4-chime notification or alert that tells you Navigate on Autopilot is disengaging. You just have to be prepared and listen up for that. You can hear it toward the end of this short Tesla video about using Navigate on Autopilot:

There are some other indicators of when you’re in Navigate on Autopilot and when you’re not. As you may have noticed in the video above, the clearest is that the two-blue-line highlighting on the lane markings around your car transform into one blue line in front of your car when you are driving on Navigate on Autopilot, and then switch back when you exit the Navigate on Autopilot system.

Anything Else?

I think that’s it. The system is really smooth. It’s superb at what it’s tasked to do, from my limited experience using it. Whether others have had a similar or different experience with Navigate on Autopilot, I’d be curious to hear. Chime in down in the comments if you’ve used this feature.

Seeing how well the system worked in this rather challenging scenario, my big remaining thoughts are:

  1. I can’t wait for this to be available in city environments, where I imagine it’s already technically capable of working brilliantly and smoothly with a simple software update. (Of course, Tesla must first push out a software update providing the vehicle with the capability to stop at red lights and stop signs on its own. That’s expected to come on November 1.)
  2. There’s very little remaining to actually get to an initial version of Full Self Driving from door to door. Tesla is supposed to be releasing a Smart Parking feature soon that combines Smart Summon with Autopark, and aside from freak edge cases, with the updates noted above, the car should be able to take you from door to door in any well developed area. Probably the biggest challenge for a while will be intelligent and efficient parking — Smart Summon is still far too cautious and Autopark doesn’t present itself as an option most of the times that I’m parking.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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