WARNING: Tesla Autopilot mode is not full autonomous driving, pay attention while “driving”

How good is the Tesla Autopilot feature?  This feature was rolled out to Tesla Model S owners over the last couple weeks, and marks a large advance towards fully autonomous vehicles.  Since then some Model S owners have posted videos of the autopilot system doing amazingly good things, and also some dangerous things.

At this stage, the autopilot software is still in “Beta” and drivers are warned to always keep their hands on the wheel.  As you see below, the drivers are ignoring that warning and getting along just fine.  This makes me worried because there’ll be the tendency to start ignoring the car while it’s driving and perhaps there will be accidents because of inattentive drivers.

That’s a big concern, since these videos make it clear the autopilot technology is not ready for full autonomous driving.  The feature is good enough that drivers are already “driving” with their hands off the wheel, and will feel encouraged by the car to ignore the road and do other things.

What happens is the car will occasionally ask the driver to put their hands on the wheel.   What’s happening is the car needs to determine if the driver is attentive.  If there’s no response (driver putting hands on wheel) the car starts beeping warning sounds, and if the driver fails to respond for long enough a time the car starts slowing down and will pull to the side of the road.

Another feature is automatic lane activated with the turn signal.

At this stage, Tesla Motors denies responsibility if an inattentive driver causes a problem.  Elon Musk explains below that the phrase used is “auto pilot” in the same sense as an airplane autopilot.    Meaning that the autopilot doesn’t take over driving, but is to assist the driver.  Tesla Motors explicitly does not use the phrase “autonomous driving” because the technology simply isn’t ready.

Here we have a majorly bad front end collision — avoided completely.

The car does an excellent job in heavy stop-and-go traffic.  However, it misses reading speed limit signs, and this guy even got a ticket while the autopilot mode was active.


In town driving by a person who’s nervous having the car driving itself.  He shows that the car would have missed some lane blockage cones, and road closure signs.

Parallel parking capability

All those people going “Look Ma, no hands” are breaking the rules laid out by Tesla Motors.

Twisting country road that’s wet and the car handled itself very well on almost every corner.

In this case the car nearly missed a fork in the road and the driver had to make a sharp manual correction.

This fellow was being an idiot, demonstrating you could take a nap while the car drives, and nearly got into an accident.

In this case it’s clearly a narrow twisting country road, and the driver didn’t have his hands on the wheel.  He explains in the notes section that the car in front had pulled ahead far enough so the Model S lost contact, then there was an oncoming car in the other lane, and for some reason the Model S suddenly tried veering into the path of that car.



About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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