Driverless Cars are Coming… But are they Really?

Gateway to the future? New overhyped technology? Or both…

We’ve all heard the utopian vision for the future, with driverless cars speeding down traffic-free roads without accidents. Although numerous individuals have dreamt of this world, nobody has executed their vision better than Elon Musk. Founded in 2003 (not by Musk), Tesla has since lead the world in the development of electric cars and autonomy.

With vehicle deliveries increasing each year, Musk’s vision of driverless cars seems closer than ever. Is the world of driverless cars closer than we think, or rather an illusory fantasy that we will indefinitely strive to reach? I have ridden in a Tesla Model 3 for several years now, and I can tell you how close the autopilot actually is to achieving full self-driving (FSD).

Tesla’s autopilot has an array of features:

  1. Autosteer (the car controls both the speed and the direction)
  2. Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (you control the direction and the car controls the speed)
  3. Navigate on Autopilot (the car automatically changes lanes to guide you from on-ramp to off-ramp on a highway)
  4. Autopark (the car parks itself when it detects a parking space)
  5. Summon (move the car forwards and backward with your phone)
  6. Smart Summon (the car automatically drives to you in a parking lot)

I will go through each of these features and tell you how useful and reliable they are.

Autosteer

Tesla’s smart cruise control allows the car to control both its steering and speed. Where it is most effective is on the highway; it steers smoothly and is not too stressful to watch. When I first used it, it seemed really exciting to see the car drive by itself, but gradually over time, I noticed its drawbacks.

This feature does not work well on local roads. On local roads, it will set a speed limit so that the car itself cannot exceed. Sometimes the speed limit is fast enough, but sometimes cars just whiz by 10 mph faster.

Additionally, the car will always try to stay in the middle of the lane. On local roads, when there are more turns, the car will not slow down, so everyone is thrown to one side, and the car will move towards one side of the lane. The car is not at risk of slipping, but it is uncomfortable.

Even on highways, there are also weak points. The car cannot detect the lane changes of other cars. Sometimes, another car will have its blinker on, but our car will just drive right next to them, not speeding up or slowing down. The autopilot can see the position of other vehicles, but not their signals.

When a slower car is switching into the lane, the Tesla will not slow down as the car is changing lanes; it will only slow down once the car is about more than halfway into the lane, so it will often suddenly slow down.

Another inconvenience is how the car controls the speed. Suppose you set the speed limit of the car to 80 mph, but the car in front of you is driving 60 mph. If the car leaves the lane, your Tesla will rapidly accelerate until it reaches 80 mph. My dad drives smoothly, so it is a bit annoying when the car suddenly accelerates.

Probably the most dangerous kink of autosteer is how it handles lane merges and lane splits. When the lane splits, autosteer will go to the middle of the lane as it widens (as opposed to staying to the left), then it is a 50/50 whether the car goes to the left or right. It’s pretty annoying when that happens because the car is bouncing around at 80 mph while other cars are probably just staring at us.

Although I just mentioned several drawbacks, the autosteer technology is very useful on the highway and will make driving less stressful. If you are driving long distances down a straight highway, just stay in one of the left lanes and turn on autopilot. It works surprisingly well and the faults in it are minor. If I could improve it in one way, I would want to allow the autopilot to adapt to the style of the driver, so maybe the kinks mentioned above could be ironed out.

Traffic-Aware Cruise Control

The traffic-aware cruise control feature allows the car to control the speed, while the driver controls the steering. This is similar to cruise control on a regular car, but the driver does need to adjust the speed. Tesla’s smart cruise control can safely be used on both freeways and local roads.

I don’t use this feature often. On highways, I use autosteer, and on local, I drive manually. Although it is not too useful, I have not noticed any errors with it.

Navigate on Autopilot

Navigate on autopilot is an add-on to autosteer on freeways. With it toggled on, the car will automatically change lanes and go to the off-ramp. It allows you to get from one highway exit to another without any of your input (other than the occasional warning to keep your hands on the steering wheel).

However convenient this may seem, there are reasons behind why I never use it. The lane changing is a bit lacking, to say the least. Its lane changes are not always the most useful, often causing other cars to wait indefinitely.

Sometimes there is a car behind us in the other lane waiting for us to switch lanes, but the autopilot never changes lanes because it thinks it is too close. Whenever navigate on autopilot wants to change lanes, it will wait for approximately 6 to 7 blinker clicks after the cars have cleared.

Due to the long waiting, other cars will have gotten tired of waiting for us to change lanes and try to pass us. The autopilot often waits in the lane indefinitely when there is clearly enough space to switch into the other lane.

In addition to the awkwardness, it simply does not have much use as of now. If drivers must keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, there is no point in automatic lane changes. Manually triggering the autopilot lane changes using the left stalk does not have long wait times and all lane changes will be ones that you want.

Autopark

Autopark, the savior that never was. The parking lot is like a war zone. There is always someone unable to park, blocking every car queued up behind it. You would think that autopark to be the solution to this problem.

Over the several years that I have had this car, I have successfully used autopark once. If you are trying to park, your car will not detect the parking space. If your car does detect a “parking space”, you are probably stopped at a traffic light wondering why autopark wants you to park between those two cars over there.

On the rare occasion where autopark does correctly detect a parking spot, it almost certainly will not work properly. When you initiate it, it will start beeping as if everything was about to blow up, then you will have had to take over.

The one time that autopark did work, it was in an extremely tight parallel parking spot. Autopark adjusted the car’s position for about two minutes until the process finally finished. It parked the car perfectly, so perfectly that it took us a minute to get the car out of the parking space.

Summon

Similar to many of Tesla’s features, the idea of controlling a car with a smartphone may have enticed many buyers. In actuality, its limited features will not prove to be as useful as you thought.

From your phone, you can only make the car drive forwards and backward. Sometimes, the car will turn to the side to avoid an obstacle, but you can never predict what it will do. I tried standing at different positions to force the car to turn, but the car just stopped.

This toy-like feature may have been entertaining to use for the first few times, but gradually, its futility overcame its appeal to me as a toy. Once, I tried to use it to back out of a parking space, but I could not make it turn. Eyes fell onto me as I put my car into reverse one last time before zooming out of the parking lot.

Smart Summon

Smart summon allows your Tesla to automatically drive to you in a parking lot. It works well when there are not many cars in the parking lot. It drives in a very inhuman way, stopping and starting abruptly.

Like many other features, smart summon is very awkward to use. It was advertised to be used in daily situations such as avoiding walking through the rain, or avoiding walking while carrying groceries. I have never found myself using smart summon in these situations.

For me, I use smart summon for entertainment when there are no other cars around. Again, like all the other features, this technology holds enormous potential. However, as of now, it does not provide any clear benefits for customers.

In conclusion, if you are thinking about buying a Tesla for a self-driving car with an array of reliable features, you should reconsider your decision. When you buy a Tesla, you are buying what you believe the future will hold.

After you buy a Tesla, there will be over-the-air software updates every so often. It is the only car that gets better after you buy it. You may be waiting for Tesla to release a better or cheaper car, but the software updates prevent your car from becoming outdated too fast, especially at the pace of innovation nowadays.

Out of all of the automakers and tech companies, Tesla is the closest to achieving the ultimate goal of a driverless society. However, these self-driving features should not be the reason you buy a Tesla. They are very immature and need more time to develop, containing several kinks and bugs.

Nevertheless, if you are looking to experience this new technology, Tesla offers the most advanced self-driving capabilities, beating all competitors in the market.

High school student interested in investing, programming, and learning.

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