Every now and then a company introduces technology that truly is a “game changer” in how drastically different your daily life is impacted once you are introduced to it. I truly feel I am witness to the dawn of such technology, brought to us by the innovative company Tesla.
I can go on and on about the many features of my Tesla Model S (2015 90D) that make me smile every time I enter the vehicle, but the one feature that rises above all in this wonderful tech car is the Autopilot setting.
First, a little background on myself. I am a physician, and as such possess the classic “Type A” personality. Every day I have about a 35 mile commute which although can occasionally be relaxing, is more often than not quite frustrating, dealing with other drivers on the road that do not follow common courtesy (most often the drivers that insist solely on travelling in the fast lane while talking on the cellphone, etc all the while building what I call a parade behind them). I typically use the cruise control on these commutes, however this often caused more frustration. With my former daily driver, I had to repeatedly disengage and engage the cruise control as I encountered these obstacles. It often caused me to overtake on the slow lane and darting back into the fast lane before I encountered a vehicle appropriately traveling on the right. I would often have to find myself needing to decompress when I first enter my workplace just from the buildup of stress frommy morning commute.
Enter Tesla into my life and the impact was obvious from the very first day I drove to work. The adaptive cruise control was leaps and bounds superior to the standard cruise control I had been accustomed to, automatically slowing down when traffic dictates without any input from me and then resuming speed when traffic clears. In fact, if this was all that Tesla offered, it still would have eliminated 95% of the frustration of my morning and evening commutes and I would be an incredibly happy owner.
However Tesla went a giant step above and introduced Autopilot. I did not know what the act of driving did to one’s mindset even in the best of traffic conditions. Although it feels subconscious, when manually driving a car, your brain is processing so much information, calculating velocity, road conditions, curves ahead, etc so that you can stay in your lane of travel. These constant mental calculations running in the background do take a toll on your mental state (akin to a computer running many applications in the background which causes the overall computer performance to slow down).
With Autopilot, my car took over all the minutia of staying in one’s lane, driving in traffic, etc and allowed me to relax in a more supervisory roll. Tesla also was kind enough to eliminate a potential annoyance I see with other manufacture’s attempts at “autopilot” by giving us Autopilot with Lane Change ability. Currently, other manufacturers which implement some sort of Lane Maintenance capability in their cars ONLY works by forcing you to stay in that particular lane. If you want to leave the current lane, the driver has to manually disengage this setting, change lanes, and then reengage the setting. I could see this cause frustration similar to what the standard cruise control feature did on my old car. With my Tesla, I just touch the indicator stalk and the car effortlessly goes into the lane I want, Autopilot engaged fully throughout.
Such was the impact that Autopilot had on my commute, that the first day I drove to work, I actually almost missed my exit. True story. I could not believe how quickly the commute seemed to be and my exit seemed to come up from nowhere. Once I realized where I was, I had to make 3 lane changes to quickly get off into the exit ramp for my workplace, which luckily I did (the only stressful part of the entire drive). It was the same distance, but the commute felt like it took half the time and I was fully relaxed pulling into the parking lot. It truly is unbelievable when you get to free your brain from the complexities of driving on the interstate and allow it to actually enjoy the experience. I remember really listening to and enjoying the music playing and just observing more things around me than before when I had to have focus on the actual task of driving.
There will always be naysayers whenever any new technology is first introduced. One criticism regarding Tesla’s autopilot that I have heard is that you lose the fun of actually driving the car. My response to that is that Autopilot is not an all or none option. For the long tedious interstate/highway travel I am happy to let Autopilot take the wheel so that my senses don’t get dulled from the monotony of driving straight for miles (if there are drivers out there who consider that scenario fun, more power to them). But you can bet that I don’t let Autopilot have the fun when I am driving those beautiful winding road with many curves, which I am fortunate to have near my house. I grab the wheel and get the full driver’s experience with precise tactile feedback from the road. Autopilot: Best of both worlds.
The most astonishing thing of all is that my version of Autopilot is considered a beta testing program by Tesla. As part of a community of Tesla owners, whenever autopilot is engaged, that information is sent centrally and Tesla learns driving habits and improves mapping of those roads. When one car learns something, every other car gets that information and improves automatically, sort of like a hive mentality. Amazing concept and one I witnessed firsthand: On my first commute, there was a tricky portion of highway where two lanes became three, with no real markings on the road to divide the lanes for 500 feet or so. When my car first encountered that section, it did not know what to do and split the difference (essentially driving in the middle of the two unmarked lanes). I made a manual correction to get it back into the lane I wanted. The next day, and everyday afterwards, the car anticipated this and correctly maintained proper lane control without any intervention. All it took was one experience and manual input from the driver and it learned proper driving behavior from then on. Amazing.
If Autopilot is this good now, I can only imagine how great it will be when it gets to its final version. The fact that I have a Tesla also means that when that version comes out, I will wake up one morning and my car will tell me I have an update to download, so I will never have to settle for old technology as my car ages. In fact, although I have only owned my car for 3 months, I have already downloaded an improved beta version of Autopilot with visibly noticeable improvements over the original version the car came with.
I applaud Tesla for pushing the technology envelope. They will always have a loyal customer in me.