It seems like every few months now, I get to experience some sort of first in vehicular autonomy. There was the 2010 Lincoln MKT that could parallel park itself, the Volvo XC90 that could handle speed and steering in stop-and-go traffic, and the Cadillac SuperCruise hands-free highway system. there’s wonder aplenty when it comes to cars and autonomy. But I haven’t had much recent experience with Tesla’s AutoPilot system, simply because I wanted to drive the Model 3 during my recent test, not consent to a collaboration with an eight-eyed computer assistant.
In any case, Autopilot’s development continues at a rapid pace—last week Tesla announced that owners have collectively covered one billion miles of driving with Autopilot engaged. So the other day I stopped by the Tesla outpost at SpaceX in Los Angeles to sample the latest upgrade to the system: Navigate on AutoPilot.
As the name implies, Navigate on Autopilot allows the car to exit a highway and get onto another when your route is loaded in the navi system. It’ll also monitor traffic around you and suggest lane changes depending on your speed. In other words: it picks the fast lane. And we all want to be in the fast lane, right?
Navigate on Autopilot requires you to opt in and choose your level of aggressiveness on the lane-change suggestions. The options there range from nothing at all to “Mad Max.” Which is the one I pick.
The first thing I notice about Autopilot is how much it’s improved since I last used it a few years ago. Back then, it would keep you from wandering out of your lane but tended to sort of ping-pong between the lane markings as it tried to find the center of the lane. Now it just locks onto the center of the lane, even when the markings are a visual mess. There’s one lane shift where the lane paint is worn, there are old lane markings that were painted over and the pavement itself has a seam that looks like a lane demarcation itself. Somehow, amongst all that, the Model 3 follows the correct path.
Then it suggests a lane change, so I nudge the turn signal to authorize the move and the car slides over. This feature doesn’t just apply to overtaking dawdlers—it’ll also prompt you to start moving over if you have an exit coming up. That’s pretty key if you’re on an unfamiliar route, especially in LA, where there might be eight lanes splitting into three highways. Autopilot wants to save you from driving too far in the lane that eventually turns into an exit. Because it knows.
When an exit comes, the Model 3 smoothly steers to the right, following the navigation route. If the exit ends in the surface street, the system will cancel. If you’re driving from one highway to another, it’ll just keep going.
The only time that Navigate on Autopilot made a strange move was when the car slowed on a traffic-free highway-to-highway ramp, seemingly apropos of nothing. That’s because part of the system’s logic depends on fleet speed data—as in, how fast other Teslas tend to go in any particular spot. And right there, at an LA highway ramp, there’s probably traffic most of the time. Right now there wasn’t, but the car slowed down anyway in anticipation. I supposed that’s a bias toward caution, but it was still a reminder that an inhuman system won’t always make human decisions.
But it won’t make human mistakes, either. That time, years ago, when I changed lanes in a Ford Explorer and belatedly learned there was a Mazda Miata cruising in my blind spot? Even Mad Max wouldn’t suggest that move.
So, Teslas can take highway exits. I remain skeptical about the impending arrival of fully autonomous cars. It’s a tough problem—or more like a few thousand tough problems. But here were are again, with another first on the road to autonomy.