More than 100 years before Tesla introduced its “Autopilot” system in 2014, the Sperry Corporation introduced automated systems in aircraft in 1912. Only some are aircraft experts, but the basics seem obvious enough as they’ve trickled down through pop culture. Pilots take off from the runway, Autopilot does most of the in-air work, and pilots intervene when necessary and land the plane themselves. What if the same concept existed in a car? It makes sense to call that system “autopilot”, too. Tesla sure thought so. It even makes comparisons between its product and aircraft autopilot.
Somewhere along the way, Tesla’s Autopilot has been misunderstood by both supporters and detractors. As it turns out, “autopilot” isn’t as straightforward a term as people thought. Does the car drive itself or not? What is the intended use? Some believe that marketing is intentionally ambiguous. The answers are published on Tesla’s website and even available in every Tesla user manual (but who reads that?). What about those who don’t own a Tesla? Is it their responsibility to understand a car they don’t even drive? Like it or not, Tesla’s Autopilot is on the road and in an ever-increasing number of cars and SUVs, so it’s time we clear the air and figure out precisely what it is, what it isn’t, and what you need to know to cohabitate the roads with it.
Testimonials and Success Stories
The American electric vehicle manufacturer has been working on its autonomous driving system for more than a decade – incrementally improving Autopilot. However, Tesla still faces numerous technological challenges and regulatory hurdles to bring in an era of driverless vehicles.
Nevertheless, Tesla drivers have been making most of the system in its current form – getting a small taste of what’s to come from the EV giant. From using the Autopilot system to drive to work and other destinations with minimal driver inputs to finding hacks to overcome inbuilt safeguards, drivers have been enjoying the futuristic design that seems to be signalling the future of autonomous driving. In 2021, Tesla dropped the radar and 12 ultrasonic sensors on its new vehicles – making the Autopilot system entirely rely on the remaining eight cameras.
However, with the current form of Tesla Autopilot in 2023, Tesla’s dream of a driverless future remains just a dream – although it has been preparing to make it a reality for a long time. Tesla claims that all its cars produced after October 2016 have the hardware they need to support fully autonomous driving when it becomes available.
Revolutionizing Vehicle Automation
The Tesla Autopilot is a feat of automotive technology. It uses eight cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, a forward-looking radar, and an onboard computer that processes all the information and guides the driver accordingly.
However, newer system versions ditched the ultrasonic sensors and the radar – now solely relying on the eight cameras and its onboard computer. The upcoming refreshed Tesla Model 3 may come with newer cameras and hardware.
The cameras provide 360 degrees of coverage around the vehicle and can collect visual information up to 250 meters away. Each of the eight cameras serves a different function.
Starting with the three front-facing cameras, the American electric vehicle manufacturer’s driver assistance system relies on them for various functions. The system relies on the 120-degree fisheye wide-angle camera to monitor traffic lights, detect obstacles in the vehicle’s path, and for low-speed manoeuvring in urban environments. The system relies on the main, narrow, forward-facing cameras for manoeuvring in high-speed situations and detecting obstacles much farther away.
An onboard computer, Hardware 3, processes all the visual information gathered by the cameras using a neural network. It then uses the processed data to guide the driver as they manoeuvre the vehicle – from centring a car in a lane to remotely summoning a Tesla vehicle to a driver’s position.
Unveiling the Technology Behind Automated Driving
Questions about the system’s safety have also hounded Tesla Autopilot since the EV manufacturer equipped its vehicles with the system.
In early 2023, Tesla recalled more than 360,000 of their vehicles after highly publicized crashes involving the Autopilot system. According to Tesla, Full Self-Driving beta software may have been to blame for some accidents. FSD is an upgraded version of the original Tesla Autopilot.
It was the first time Tesla admitted that its Autopilot system may have played a role in some accidents and crashes. According to the EV manufacturer’s officials, many accidents occurred as the Teslas drove through intersections.
In one incident, a Tesla, reportedly with its Autopilot system activated, crashed into a police car. In another incident, another Tesla driving with the Autopilot system crashed into a parked truck and exploded.