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What it's like to use Tesla's newest self-driving car technology

Lots of cars these days can auto-park. Lots can self-drive on the highway. Lots of them have collision avoidance—they’ll slam on the brakes if you don’t. A few cars can change lanes automatically when you put your turn signal on.

Tesla’s Autopilot feature does all of that, of course. (I’m a Model 3 owner, and a big Autopilot fan.) But with a free software update this week, Autopilot picks up new skills not found on any other car on the market. A Tesla can now pass a slow car ahead of you; change lanes so that it’s in the correct one for your exit; and take highway On and Off ramps—all by itself.

The Model S.
The Model S.

I took a Model 3 for a spin to try the new features; details below. Meanwhile, this small upgrade, called Navigate with Autopilot, has two big implications:

  • Tesla’s cars are arguably now the self-drivingest cars on the market. Of course, no car on the road yet responds to Stop signs and traffic lights, and no car can drive you around without you paying attention. But with this week’s Tesla update, no car comes closer.

  • It’s becoming clear how Tesla, and presumably its rivals, intend to reach that fully autonomous state. There won’t be one new car model that suddenly does it all. Instead, the car companies intend to automate one driving situation at a time. First it was cruise control. Then it was adaptive cruise control (the car slows automatically when the car ahead does). Then parking. Then lane changes. Now, Tesla has added taking interchanges and off ramps. (Coming soon, Elon Musk says: Your Tesla will be able to circle a parking lot until it finds an open spot; read the posted restrictions, if any; and then park, all without your help.)

The existing features

Every Tesla with Enhanced Autopilot (a $5,000 option), already has these self-driving talents:

  • Self-driving (highway). Autopilot includes the above-mentioned adaptive cruise control. A trackball on the steering wheel lets you adjust your maximum speed (roll it vertically) and distance behind the next car (horizontally).

  • Autosteer keeps you in the lane automatically by detecting the painted lane lines, cars and other objects around you.

  • Auto-Lane Change. On the highway, if you put on your turn signal, the car checks your blind spot, and, if all is clear, smoothly changes lanes and then turns off the blinker.

  • Self-driving (side roads.) The Tesla can self-drive off the highway, too, with limitations. It’s fantastic in stop-and-go traffic. But the Tesla refuses to go more than 5 mph over the posted speed limit. Yes, yes, that’s the careful, legal way to do it—but it drives people behind you crazy. You also have to be going over 18 mph to turn Autosteer on—unless there’s a car ahead of you.

  • Summon (a button you press in the phone app) makes the Tesla slowly, silently roll out of its parking place, either in forward or in reverse. It’s great for situations when someone has parked too close for you to open the door. (It also opens your garage door, if you’ve set it up that way.)

  • Auto-Park. The Tesla can also park itself, either parallel or perpendicularly, as long as there are other cars on either side of the space. Unlike some cars, which prompt you to operate the shift gears (forward, reverse), the Tesla does everything for you—turning the wheel, shifting, braking.

Some of these features are marked “beta.” All of them are intended to assist you, not replace you, as the driver. (For example, if it’s been more than a couple of minutes since the car felt your hands on the wheel, the screen in front of you flashes; then a chime sounds; if you still don’t respond, Autopilot turns off. If there’s still no response from you, the car figures that maybe you’ve passed out. It slows to a stop and turns on its hazard lights.)

The new features

The new features are intended for highway use. They also work only on Autopilot—when the car is accelerating, braking, and steering itself.

When you enter a GPS destination, a new “Navigate on Autopilot” button appears beneath the turn-by-turn instructions. If you tap to turn it on, and then turn on Autopilot (two presses of the steering-wheel stalk), the fun begins: automated driving, from on-ramp to off-ramp.

Bright blue indicates self-driving features. The bright-blue line is new; it shows your automated path.
Bright blue indicates self-driving features. The bright-blue line is new; it shows your automated path.

Here’s how they work.

Autopass. If the person in front of you is driving too slowly—45 in a 55 mph zone, for example—what would you do? Why, you’d pass them.

Now, the Tesla can do that, too. If it notices that you’re being blocked, and that there’s room in the next lane, a notification appears on your screen. It informs you that if you put on your turn signal, Autopilot will take it from there. It does the passing maneuver smoothly and gracefully. (It doesn’t actually return to your original lane, however—just changes into a faster lane, passing the slowpoke, and stays there.)

How aggressive is it? That’s up to you. In the onscreen settings, you can adjust how impatient your car is. The options are Disabled (off), Mild, Average, and Mad Max. In Mad Max mode, the Tesla will suggest passing if the guy in front of you is going even a couple of mph below the speed limit.

(The “Mad Max” setting is characteristic of the Musk-esque sense of humor that’s baked in to Teslas. The acceleration options on the Model S are labeled Chill, Standard, Sport, Insane, and Ludicrous.)

Entrance ramps. This is the big one. The Tesla is now the first commercial car that can actually make turns for you. For example, if you’re on the entrance ramp to the highway, the car automatically accelerates, signals, and merges onto the highway.

Automatic lane selection. Now the car now keeps an eye on upcoming interchanges and exit ramps, and steers itself into the correct lane, so that you never miss an exit. On the screen, a blue steering-wheel icon appears next to the navigation instruction in question. Then the car puts on its turn signal, waits for a safe moment, and then changes lanes to get in the exit lane. (At one point in my test, it did that twice to reach the far right lane.)

(Sometimes—when you’re moving from one full-size lane to another—you have to approve the proposed move by tapping your turn-signal stalk or gear stalk. Other times—when an exit lane splits out of your existing one, or when your current lane forks—the car makes the shift automatically, without any action on your part.)

You may say, “Good heavens! How lazy do you have to be?”—but there’s more to it than that. In my drive through New Jersey’s complex highway cloverleafs, there were several occasions when the highway split into three lanes—the main road plus two forking exits. Those could be panicky moments if you’re unfamiliar with the area. It was amazing to watch the car pick the correct lane automatically.

Exit ramps. If your destination requires you to turn from one highway to another, there’s nothing to it. The car takes the exit ramp, slowing if necessary, and then continues merrily on the new highway.

If you’re turning from a highway onto a residential road, though, the car slows down, and then a distance countdown appears on your screen, letting you know how many more feet are left to go before Navigate on Autopilot turns off. A new, three-note chime plays at that moment. Now you’re in traditional Autopilot: the car drives and steers itself on your new road, but no longer attempts to make turns or take ramps.

The whole procedure looks like this, courtesy of LivingTesla on YouTube:

As with other aspects of Autopilot, the new features aren’t flawless. In general, the car is (wisely) conservative: It doesn’t attempt to change lanes or take an exit unless it deems the maneuver safe. Trouble is, you don’t always know what it’s thinking. Sometimes, it won’t change lanes to pass a slow truck, for example, even though the next lane looks perfectly empty to you. And if the exit lane is crowded with cars, you need to grab the wheel and nose into the line yourself.

The driveaway

In May, 63 percent of Americans told the AAA that they wouldn’t want to ride in a self-driving car. There are all kinds of reasons: They don’t like change. They don’t like surrendering control. They don’t feel safe (even though, by Tesla’s math, human drivers are 10 times more dangerous).

People are becoming more comfortable as automatic autos become more commonplace. Even so, you’ll be under no obligation to use self-driving features; no car company yet intends to take away the steering wheel.

But for many people, offloading some of the mechanical driving tasks to the car de-stresses the experience. It lets you focus more on your progress and your surroundings than on pedals and wheels.

Those kinds of people look forward to being able, someday, to working or napping during their automotive commutes. For them, Tesla’s latest software update is a drive in the right direction.

David Pogue welcomes comments below. On the web, he’s On Twitter, he’s @pogue. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.

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