In mid-August Tesla sent out the first release of its beta v7.0 software update to early access testers all around the U.S. and parts of Europe. This particular update is an extremely anticipated one, not just because of the UI design overhaul, but because it includes several new ‘Autopilot’ features, which some Model S owners have been waiting for close to a year now.

We wrote a first look at the update when the release came out and we followed-up with Tesla’s second release of the beta v7.0 earlier this month.  Now this weekend I had the opportunity to fly out and have a complete (unofficial) walk-through of the new update and more importantly, I got to experience the new ‘Autopilot’ features.

First of all, it works. It might sound obvious, but there’s place for doubts when talking about a production car driving itself on the road today. In the case of the Model S equipped with Tesla’s v7.0 update, you can absolutely drive on the highway for miles without having to touch the steering wheel.

Every Model S delivered since the fourth quarter 2014 is equipped with the Autopilot hardware, which includes forward-looking camera, radar, and 360 degree sonar sensors. Tesla already enabled the ‘Traffic-Aware Cruise Control’ (TACC) feature which utilize the hardware, but the ‘Autosteer’, automatic lane changing and self-parking are to be released with the version 7.0 and currently being tested in beta version.

The auto-steering combined with the active cruise control are what enables hand free highway driving. Model S owners already using the cruise control will find that the auto-steering seemingly complement the feature. The car lets you know when the road conditions are favorable to both ‘Autosteer’ and TACC by showing the icons on each side of the speedometer:

v7.0_2

You pull on the cruise control lever twice to activate the features and it will highlight the icons to indicate that the features are working. The car then adjusts to the cruise control speed and steers itself in the center of the way. The projected way appears on the dashboard and when the ‘Autopilot’ detects road lines, they are highlighted in blue on the screen and the same thing happens when the active cruise control locks onto a car in front of the Model S to follow it.

The car can go on like this for miles without you having to touch the steering wheels whatsoever and you can even change lanes by simply taping the turn signal. Now every now and again, the ‘Autopilot’ feels like it doesn’t have enough data to properly steer the car and it will alert you to either “hold the steering-wheel” or  “take control immediately”.

(a year ago, we got a sneak preview of the autosteer, and insane, above)

These 2 alerts are very different. For the “hold the steering-wheel” alert, the ‘Autosteer’ sees ahead that it will momentarily not have enough data to properly steer the vehicle and it wants to make sure you are ready to take over. In order to make the alert go away, you simply have to hold the steering-wheel for a second and by the time you do that, the Autopilot is most likely back to normal with enough data to steer the vehicle.

Something as simple as a faded road line or the sun glaring on the road can cause this alert to popup. Even when the road conditions appear ideal to you for the Autopilot, the alert could still popup. If you position yourself at the height of the front-facing camera, which is behind the rear-view mirror,  you could more easily understand why it momentarily lost data if, for example, at that particular angle the sun is glaring on the road markings.

If you ignore the “hold the steering-wheel” alert for too long, even if it’s now back to normal for the Autopilot, it will change into a “take control immediately” alert, which will flash your hazard lights, slow down and steer the vehicle to the side of the road. The transition is presumably the Autopilot assuming that if you are not seeing the alert, you might be incapacitated and therefore it stops the vehicle.

The “take control immediately” alert can also appear on its own without following a “hold the steering-wheel” alert. It will rarely appear on the highway, but if the Autopilot doesn’t have enough data points to control the vehicle it will quickly alert you to take control.

Nagging

Since the release of the first leak of information about the beta Autopilot, there’s been a fear among Model S owners that the system will constantly “nag” you into touching the steering-wheel. In my opinion, the fear is unwarranted. I don’t think anyone would think that alerts all together are not necessary for such a system, so the question is how to do alerts without “nagging” the driver, but while still being safe?

There’s probably room for improvement, but as a first entry, I think Tesla got it right. Both alerts appear at the bottom of the dashboard and with a sound by default. You can disable the sound for the “hold the steering-wheel” alert, which is the alert you will see most often. Like I said above, you simply have to hold the steering-wheel for a second to make it go away.

If the conditions are good, you will not see any alert and you will not have to touch the steering-wheel for miles and could even technically drive on the highway until your battery pack is depleted.

In other words, the beta release of the Autopilot only pushes alerts when needed and they are unobtrusive when the system still has control.

Part 2…

This post is longer than I thought it would be so I’m breaking it into two parts. In the second part I’ll talk about the self-parking feature, the responsibility of the driver, the use of the Autopilot on the highway versus side streets and the wide release of the update. I’ll follow up with the second part as soon as possible.

Update – Part 2 is now online: Road test: Model S equipped with Tesla’s v7 Beta Autopilot [Part 2] surface streets and parking

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