What is Tesla Autopilot?

Beverly Braga | Jun 30, 2020

Tesla Autopilot is the umbrella term for the advanced driving assistance system (ADAS) available on the company’s vehicles. Featuring eight external cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, a forward-facing radar, and a powerful on-board computer, Autopilot can process visual, sonar, and radar data to provide a 360-degree field of vision. 

Tesla Autopilot

Note, however, that this expansive set of hardware and software is only applicable to vehicles produced after October 2016. Those built from September 2014 and up to October 2016 were manufactured with one camera and a less powerful radar and sensors, and cannot be retrofitted to accommodate the latest Autopilot technology. 

Also, for those unaware of Tesla’s pricing structure, the simple explanation is “subject to change.” So, while Autopilot capability is standard on all new vehicles, its activation is not.

What’s Included with Tesla Autopilot?

Tesla offers two official Autopilot packages: Basic Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability (FSD). The basic package is included on all new Teslas, equipping them with Traffic-Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer. The former is an adaptive cruise control system with automatic stop-and-go, while the latter is a lane centering assistance system. This is where Autopilot offers a small taste of its hands-free driving capabilities. 

Additionally, with the adaptive cruise control engaged, the lane departure warning and lane keeping assistance system opens up another level of monitoring. If the system determines the vehicle is leaving its lane too often or that the driver’s hands are not on the steering wheel despite a series of notifications and alerts, the vehicle will automatically turn on the hazard lights and slow down to 15 mph below the speed limit or a driver-set vehicle speed. This setting, which works between 25 and 90 mph, can be driver disabled.

What’s Included with Tesla Full Self-Driving Capability?

A Tesla’s optional FSD package is the stuff of viral YouTube videos. Automatic lane change, self-parking, and vehicle summoning are included as well as beta versions of Navigate on Autopilot and Traffic and Stop Sign Control. And, yes, the summon feature does just that: it summons your vehicle to you, like a valet without the, umm, valet.

Via the key fob or mobile app, owners can command their Tesla to exit its parking space and drive to them all by itself. This is a handy feature should the vehicle be in a tight parking space, in an awkward position for loading, or as a neat party trick. But you must be within 200 feet of the vehicle for the summon feature to work, and Tesla says the summon mode is intended for use in private settings only. The vehicle can be stopped at any time during the process. 

Navigate on Autopilot has less to do with map directions and everything to do with navigating the actual destination route. This system works in conjunction with Autosteer and has the ability to self-drive a Tesla on marked roadways like highway on-ramps, off-ramps, and interchanges as well as make lane changes to pass slower vehicles or prepare to exit a freeway.

Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control not only recognizes road signs and stoplights but will adjust the vehicle’s speed accordingly. Drivers must actively participate with this technology or it won’t work. For example, even if a traffic light ahead is green, unless the driver indicates it is safe for the vehicle to continue on, it will begin to slow down. Also, regardless of whether the turn signal is on, this feature will not turn the vehicle for you.

A “coming soon” feature is Autosteer+, which will navigate beyond highways and marked lanes to drive through more complex settings like city streets, intersections, roundabouts, etc. A release date has not been determined, but if Autosteer+ performs as intended, your Tesla could theoretically take you from Point A to Point B with minimal steering on your part.

Autopilot Doesn’t Literally Translate to Automatic Piloting 

In spite of its name, no Tesla or any vehicle sold by any automaker is fully autonomous or able to safely self-drive without a driver paying attention and ready to intervene when necessary. 

In fact, a Tesla driver cannot enable Autopilot without first acknowledging to “keep their hands on the wheel” and to “maintain control and responsibility” of the vehicle. Thanks to driver monitoring systems, there is a plethora of in-vehicle warnings and alerts if the safety features determine the driver is distracted. Autopilot can make driving easier and much more comfortable, especially on long trips, but its features and functions do not absolve the driver from remaining attentive and alert.

The Fickle Price of Hands-Free

Without a dealer network, Tesla can set (and change) its vehicle and option pricing on a whim. Especially considering all vehicles have the same technology hardware, and upgrades are a simple matter of over-the-air updates. Once a Tesla owner takes possession of their vehicle, all after-sale purchases—from greater battery range to heated rear seats—are activated via the app.

For example, in June of 2020, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a flash sale of sorts for Autopilot. Aimed specifically at existing Tesla owners who did not opt for Autopilot from the get-go, they could do so for a steeply discounted $2,000—a big savings from its previously offered point-of-sale price of $5,000. 

Owners can also request an after-the-fact upgrade to the FSD package for $7,000, the price for which increased to $8,000 beginning July 1, 2020. Even if owners miss out on this sale, they still have time to add FSD before the end of 2020, when the FSD package will become a subscription-based feature. No word yet on how much or how often (whether monthly or annually) payments will be, but a lifetime Autopilot membership could be a smart buy for those thinking long-term Tesla ownership.

The information in this article is from Tesla and other sources. It was accurate on June 30, 2020 but may have changed since that date. Tesla is known for regularly adjusting prices, feature offerings, and more.

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