Autonomy in the UK: Autopilot Tesla on the M4

By James O Malley on at

There’s a lot of hype around autonomous cars. If the wild shrieks of tech nerds like us are to be believed, we should only be a couple of years away from driverless vehicles becoming a common sight on the streets of our cities.

And in fact, if you look carefully you can already see some examples of autonomy on the streets of the capital.

The first fully autonomous vehicles might already be on the road. Thanks to some impressive foresight, the latest Teslas all rolled off of the production line fully equipped with the sensors and cameras necessary to make the vehicles fully autonomous - when the time comes.

To make this happen, all Elon Musk will have to do is issue a software update. All Teslas are connected vehicles, which means more functionality can be added remotely. This can be used for non-mission critical functionality, such as adding Spotify support to the on-board entertainment system - but over the last few year has also seen software updates improve the driving experience. For example, in January 2015 the company added traffic-aware cruise control and a couple of months later it added automatic emergency braking.

And since October 2015, we’ve seen hints of the autonomous future to come as the company rolled out its “autopilot” features - which enable the car to steer itself and change lanes automatically when driving on the motorway.

So what’s it like to drive with these features enabled?

I started my short test drive driving normally from the showroom. And even this took a little getting used to: The car is enormous compared to the tiny Ford Ka that I’m used driving (yeah, don’t laugh). But what was clear was that the Model S was an incredibly smooth and easy drive.

It was when I pulled on to the M4 that the clever tech behind autopilot became apparent. The mode is activated by squeezing twice on one of the switches connected to the steering column. And then… well.. The car takes over. To take back control yourself, all you have to do is move the wheel or press one of the pedals again - similar to how cruise control has always worked.

There’s a diagrammatic view of what the car sees on the screen behind the dash, so you can see which cars it has detected.

The first time you experience this “autopilot”, it requires a leap of faith: If you choose to not steer, will the car really figure out that the road is bending and act accordingly?

Frankly, it’s a little bit freaky. Intellectually, you know that the technology should work but the animal part of your brain starts to panic. Of course, seconds later the car of course turns exactly as expected so everything turns out fine - but then there is the strange sensation of feeling the wheel turn beneath your hands.

To ensure that you’re still paying attention to the road, you need to make sure you’re touching the wheel every couple of minutes. And this is where I started to worry about a potential unseen consequence of semi-autonomous driving. After quickly getting used the car broadly driving itself, I found myself relaxing… perhaps a little too much. As I loosened my grip on the steering wheel, I found myself not concentrating with the same level of paranoia that I usually do when behind the wheel. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t putting my feet up and playing with my phone. I was still looking at the road, but I think that my brain may have shunted a little bit further towards being set in “passenger seat” mode - an inevitable consequence of having slightly less to do.

And this makes me wonder: Could semi-autonomy lure motorists into a false sense of security? What if semi-autonomy means we start to break the lifetime habits of checking blind-spots and “mirror, signal, manoeuvre” becomes merely a suggestion, if we start to assume that our cars will know when it is best to move?

Hopefully the myriad of sensors will make up for any new-found laziness, but could our natural inclination to pay attention be a casualty as we transition to full autonomy? Or perhaps this worry, in the not too distant future, will end up sounding as ridiculous as the 1865 Locomotive Act - which insisted that a man with a red flag walk in front of “self-propelled” vehicles.

Don’t get me wrong, despite this paranoia I really felt like driving the Tesla was seeing the next big thing. Teslas are not only the coolest cars on the road, but the tech behind them in both engine and autonomy seems a sign of things to come. It’s just a shame that the Model S starts at an eye-watering £66,000 if you want to have a glimpse of the future.

Epilogue: Though little did I know that only days after test driving the Tesla. I’d take an even bigger leap into the automotive future just days later. Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 to find out what happened next.