My Model S was in for service again to fix the long term intermittent problem of my bluetooth failing. I requested a loaner with autopilot. This service visit I received a P85D with autopilot and drove it for over 100 miles in a variety of conditions.
Autopilot currently consists of four separate features: automatic steering (auto steer) on freeways and highways, automatic lane changing, traffic aware cruise control, and automatic parallel parking. The auto steer and auto lane changing are the most amusing and entertaining. I found auto steer to be a bit buggy and not particularly useful. Traffic aware cruise control is probably the most useful feature of the bunch and could be really great for someone with a nasty commute. Auto parking worked well but only under specific conditions. I’ll talk about each of these four features in some detail.
To turn on auto steer, you pull the cruise control stick towards you twice in a row on an appropriate highway. Auto steer follows the lane markings on a highway and attempts to keep the car in the center of the lane. Because it follows the lane markings, it really only works well on freeways or highways with uninterrupted center lines.
I tried auto steer in a variety of conditions. On the freeway it worked quite nicely in the center and middle lanes. In the far right lane, auto steer’s performance was weaker because many times the far right lane markings were weaker. A couple of times it jerked the car over to the right on the freeway. The software seems to handle an exiting lane fine and stayed in the far right lane.
In California, we are finally experiencing a lot of rain as the El Niño weather pattern has started. Several times during moderate rain on the freeway the auto steer turned off.
I did a fair amount of driving also on “highways” – two lane roads through the mountains and along the coast. Where the road was gentle and consistent, auto steer did fine. For other highway driving, auto steer was a challenge. A couple of times the pavement line on the right hand side disappeared, and it jerked to the right. When a left turn lane appeared, the car got confused. One very long reasonable U shaped curve, the software got quite confused and drove the left tires at one point over the center marker.
After a days worth of driving I got pretty comfortable with auto steer and allowed the wheel to move my hands around, which at first felt a little strange. I think I would only use auto steer on real freeway driving where there are consistent lane markers. In some ways I think auto steer is a technology looking for a problem. When I am driving on a freeway, I do not mentally steer, and I am already driving on “auto pilot”. Having the car auto steer on, I found took more attention than normal. I found this feature to be quite entertaining but not particularly useful in this simple form.
Auto Lane Change
I experimented with auto lane change a number of times and it worked flawlessly. It is super easy to use, just turn on your turn signal indicator and it will change lanes for you. I never did try it in conditions where there was a car in another lane as that felt dangerous. Again I’m not sure I need this feature.
Traffic Aware Cruise Control
On the other hand, I really liked traffic aware cruise control. Since the car’s sensors’ detect a car ahead of you, it calculates the correct speed to maintain a safe distance from the other car. I don’t use cruise control a lot because of this exact problem. When I have conventional cruise control on and another car appears in front of me, its often too much of a hassle to adjust the speed. But this traffic aware cruise control solves this problem beautifully. I can see how useful this would be if you are unfortunately stuck in commute traffic.
Fortunately, I do not commute, and even when I did work my longest commute was 15 minutes. When I am stuck in stop and go traffic, I really do not enjoy driving, so I would like this feature. My only minor complaint is that I would like to adjust the distance a bit. I like to keep larger distances than normal from other drivers. Perhaps that is wasting space on the road, but I found with traffic aware cruise control, I felt a bit like I was tailgating.
I confess I am not a good parallel parker and avoid it. When I do parallel park, I typically find spots at the beginning or end of a line as they are so much easier to get in and out of. Now that my mirrors change positions in reverse, I can safely avoid any curb rash on my wheels.
Auto Parallel Parking is a feature I do like but in the first release it is quite limited. You must be on a street with sidewalks and be parking in between two parked cars. I found several places I wanted to try this feature, but in my area 75% of the parking opportunities did not match those conditions. When I did find an appropriate place, the car parked itself very nicely. It did allow me to parallel park in front of a fire hydrant though.
I enjoyed driving the P85D. This time I could feel that the handling was significantly improved over my S85. Because the roads were so wet, the car did slip when I floored it in ludicrous mode. But I did enjoy the increased acceleration. I do not know if I would spent the significant extra dollars though to buy the increased acceleration. Where I live there are just so few times when I could enjoy it.
Autopilot costs $2,500 if purchased with the car. The parking sensors themselves are now standard equipment with the car. I really like traffic aware cruise control and would likely buy this package primary for that feature. But I’m not compelled to upgrade my Model S for the auto pilot package.