“Silky smooth” autopilot? “Almost” there

There are huge expectations towards what Tesla Autopilot should deliver. They are fueled by numerous bold promises from Elon Musk, as well as early adopters (such as myself) who took a plunge and purchased the car with EAP (Enhanded Autopilot) and FSD (Full Self-Driving) hardware.

Now, I knew that the technology or features were not there yet when I decided to buy into the “promise of the future”. Not everyone has the same patience or expectations though, so there’s a lot of disappointment (anger even) that the Autopilot is not what it was supposed to be by now. I get it. The inner child in us took over when we took the first bite of the full self-driving promise candy and it might have left some bitter taste afterwards. There was so much hype about autonomous vehicles and how soon they can hit the road.

The reality is (putting adult’s hat and skin back on) that no matter the hype, this is not something that can or will be delivered overnight. For what it is worth, I do like the steady but important improvements in software algorithms that drive the features such as Autopilot. Ever since Andrej Karpathy took over an AI team in Tesla there has been a steady stream of software updates to the car fleet. None of them really advertised any features related to EAP or FSD, but the changes are noticeable nonetheless. My car has been updated to version 2017.46 recently and if used as prescribed (aka read the disclaimer before enabling the “beta” of Autopilot) I dare to say it is as close to “silky smooth” as it can be. Before I continue though it is worth pointing out that not every Tesla cars receives every incremental updates. Quite commonly (as reported by Tesla owners) there will be a period of “drought” where the car does not receive every bit of software released and instead there will be a jump (from 2017.3x to 2017.4x, for example). With that said, some of the more noticeable changes I have been observing since 2017.32 include:

  • The car will stay centered in the lane and any minute adjustments are hardly noticeable (as opposed to the “ping-pong” effect where the car used to go from the left to right lane marker all the time);
  • No more hugging of any specific side of the lane (left tor right), as if the vehicle had its own preferences;
  • Negotiating “stay in the lane” when approaching on-ramp, off-ramp or merge lanes. It used to be that the algorithm will either try to take an unexpected exit from the highway you were travelling on or sway from left to right to occupy the whole width of the temporarily expanded width of the lane, surely making it appear to the cars merging in as if a complete jerk was driving the Tesla in front of them. Kudos for not making me appear like one anymore;
  • Handling various lighting conditions (such as driving into direct sunlight where lane markings are blending with the pavement, making them difficult to see);
  • Much faster/more frequent feedback from the sensors when it comes to monitoring adjacent lanes and vehicles in the blind spot.
  • Negotiating curvy roads at high speeds (there’s a number of spots on Interstate Highway 35 that I frequent where I question the engineering behind placing two or more sharp bends where everyone is traveling at 75 mph or faster, but I digress).

Overall, it “feels” as close to natural (human-like) as it gets. Below is a sample video showcasing the behavior during bright daylight, driving mostly into the morning sun:

Another sample of the same road during the night:

I have been using Autopilot on almost daily basis now and it comes very handy. Paired with TACC (Traffic Aware Cruise Control) it helps to eliminate most of the stress related to daily commute. Its behavior is more predictable (most importantly, consistent) with the recent release, so that’s a bonus.

There are still some things that require more work and improvement before it is prime time ready. Few of the glitches that still exist that I should point out:

  • “Ghost” braking. On certain stretches of the freeway (most notably where there was recent reconstruction or widening such as commenced during 35express project, the system “thinks” I am driving along what used to be a frontage road and immediately issues a warning that auto-steering assistance is limited to 45 or 50 mph. Very dangerous if it catches you off-guard when flowing with the rest of the traffic at a freeway speeds! On a stretch of I-35 I travel along it happens 3 times on a stretch of 20-odd miles. At least it is consistent, so I am prepared to respond, but the whole point of Autopilot is to give you reassurance and confidence that the system is working as intended, not take away from it.
  • The system is limited to work on multi-lane freeways and divided highways. While it might work on a farm road with clear road markings Tesla is cautioning not to use it on such roads yet.
  • Speaking of clear markings, you better watch for that too. Don’t take unnecessary risk on a temporarily re-striped pavements, construction zones, tight city streets etc.
  • It should not be used in heavy rain or snow (the accumulation of the latter can interfere with the radar and sensors).
  • It doesn’t read the speed signs or other traffic signs just yet (such as stop), so you have to pay attention to those and adjust speed (or stop) accordingly.
  • The autopilot (more likely TACC in this case) will not respond to the vehicles and objects ahead of you that are stationary, so pay attention when approaching a fully stopped traffic (such as traffic lights at the intersection or an incident)!

To sum things up, there’s still a lot of missing gaps that have to be addressed before the Autopilot can truly be used in any condition and on any road. I don’t believe this is something that can (safely!) happen overnight and we will see steady incremental developments leading to self-driving cars. This is why the feature is still available as a beta and as such should be used with a does of caution (RTFM, people). As of now, Autopilot and other driver assistance features are just this: a helper to alleviate some of the pains related to mundane commute and make them less severe. Don’t use them against what they are capable of and keep everyone (including yourself) safe on the road.

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