Congestion on our roads is one of the biggest issues facing daily commuters who are now spending longer than ever in their cars on their daily commute. While we imagine everyone stuck in traffic faces the same issue, the reality is that the car you’re travelling in, and the technology available in that vehicle, make a dramatic difference to how painful or enjoyable that experience is.
Another common journey is the weekend road trip, off for a holiday, to see family, or travelling across Australia for an event. Road trips are often long adventures that require stops every couple of hours to refresh the driver.
The Tesla Model X features Autopilot, a combination technologies namely Adaptive Cruise Control and Autosteer which regulates your speed based on the conditions like traffic, corner angle etc, while also steering the vehicle to position it in the center of the lane. This combination of technologies means the commute and road trips alike, require very little mental exertion from the driver, resulting in a fresher you, when stepping out of a drive, leaving you ready to take on the challenges of work, or start of a family adventure, rather than running for the nearest coffee machine.
While many vehicles are adding driver assists, Tesla’s implementation is easily the best I’ve experienced. During my time with the Tesla, I heard from a number of people that own Mercedes, Audi’s and BMW’s that try, none do what this car does. Many of those competing technology stacks rely on tracking when one side of the vehicle approaches a white line (left or right) and turns the steering wheel away to avoid going off the road, or oncoming traffic. This results in a ping-pong between the white lines.
Tesla Autopilot communicates to the driver through grey lines beside the digital version of the vehicle on the driver’s display. This lets you know the car can clearly see and track the lane and that Autopilot is available. After driving the car for a week, its clear the Tesla has a great ability to determine the trajectory of a road based on combining the lines both close and at a distance from the vehicle, essentially joining the dots between turning lanes and side streets.
Officially Autopilot is to be used for the freeways and highways, but I can tell you, its getting close to being practical in-town as well. The system certainly isn’t perfect, with roundabouts, red lights still beyond the current software’s capabilities, but the list is actually pretty short. The advancements made since I reviewed the Model S a couple of years ago, combined with the Autopilot early release videos, demonstrate level 5 Autopilot or full autonomy isn’t far away.
Given the high-profile international accidents with Autopilot, Tesla now take a bit more conservative approach. When you engage Autopilot by pulling twice on the cruise control stalk, the display reminds you to keep you hands on the wheel. If you choose to ignore this, the car will remind you. If you continue to ignore this, Tesla will actually disable Autopilot for the rest of your journey. Ultimately you could pull over park, then continue again, but its enough of a roadblock to simply apply some pressure to the wheel. What I’d like to see is a camera that monitors the driver for attention levels. While the hand of the wheel system works, it doesn’t actually achieve the objective of checking if the driver is paying attention should they need to intervene. A good example of this in Australia is wildlife, like Kangaroos that may come out of nowhere.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the last few years that’s flared up again recently around the frustration with drivers who text and drive. There’s some crazy solutions being suggested like putting your phone in the glove box or boot, or even adding a phone jammer in your vehicle to protect you from yourself. None of that will work. What will work is letting people text, check social media, browse the web and let the car drive itself. Removing the responsibility of driving from people is the only serious, practical solution to solving this problem and reducing the road toll as a result of driver distraction to zero.
When (not if) that happens, we’ll start to rethink about commutes. If you can be entertained or productive during your daily commute, your frustration around congestion will dramatically be reduced because you don’t have to care about it. Sure trips will continue to take longer than you’d ideally like them to, but when cars drive themselves (or close to it, like Autopilot), then having a 45 minute commute suddenly becomes very acceptable and you may make different choices about where you choose to buy or build your home.
Autopilot and the combination of technologies that enable it, are a great example of the race that’s on between automakers and its less about safety now, its more about convenience. So now the question is, can a technology company become an auto company, faster than an auto company become a technology company? Right now, Tesla is winning.