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Pilots and Tesla Owners Explain How Autopilot Works

After Tesla Model S recently crashed into a stopped firetruck many people started to raise the question of how Tesla Autopilot works and how it should work. As a result, some people started critiquing Tesla for calling its system Autopilot.


I was reading the chatter in Tesla Model S Owners Club on Facebook and were Tesla owners and few airplane pilots talked about how the Autopilot works, why should drivers still be alert and how to avoid accidents.

Tesla Drivers Must Consistently Monitor The Autopilot

"As a commercial airline pilot, I would like to point out that an autopilot on any aircraft is constantly monitored by pilots. At no point is it 100% trusted. Also frequently during more complex portions of flying such as transitioning to approach it needs to be disconnected and the pilot will take over manually because it does not perform as required. My point is that Tesla is not at fault for naming its system Autopilot, but rather people do not understand the use and capabilities of an actual Autopilot, writes Urban Larsson in the group.

Use Tesla Autopilot The Same Way Pilots Use It

The way Autopilot works even the pilots don't fully trust it.

"I totally agree. As a private pilot and boat captain, I never trust the autopilot 100% and rarely use it in the plane, boat, or car," writes Ellyn Stevenson in the group.

"After spending more than half my life at Sea on large ships, most of that time as the Captain or Pilot I can easily say that I trust the “autopilot” in my MS P100DL about as much as I trust the autopilot on any of the hundreds of ships I have Conned (navigated). Many of which are new builds with the latest and greatest system aboard that periodically have to be turned off (control is taken back), because they can’t handle environmental or traffic or large mammal situations, to name a few," writes Phil Taylor

Also See: What happens when you fall asleep with your Tesla Model S on Autopilot

How To Use The Autopilot

Dave Snow, who is a private pilot of a small plane he takes off and lands by hand. "At altitude, I engage autopilot but constantly scan for traffic, monitor the engine gauges, maintain altitude, listen to the radio... You are still in command of the vehicle and responsible for safety. Tesla autopilot should be used the same way. Navigate local streets by hand, when you get to a safe and suitable road or highway engage autopilot to decrease your workload, but monitor traffic and conditions at all times. Disengage when needed," Snow recommends.

Perhaps Tesla Should Call It an Augmented Driving

Michael Kraeftner, who is himself a pilot, relates to Snow's experience and recommendation. He suggests replacing the name Autopilot with "Augmented Driving." "I would have called it "Augmented driving." It sounds better and more modern than AP and is more intuitive for non-pilot Tesla users," Kraeftner suggests. Or perhaps just name it "Augmented Distance Driving," for a more accurate name.

Tesla has videos for owners describing the functionality of various aspects of the car. I wish they would make a video of the major things AP won't do as well as the major interpretations of Autopilot's ability.

It's obvious that some Tesla owners misunderstand how Autopilot works. If you think that you can sit in your car and sleep while it takes you from point A to point B, you are mistaken. We are not there yet. And who knows how long it will take for the science to get there. I don't even know if it's a good thing or not.

Regarding how Tesla Autopilot works: it’s your understanding of Autopilot. That’s the issue. Not the autopilot itself. Use it for what it is not what you want it to be.

Autopilot Is Not Hands-Free

If you are a Tesla driver reading this story, don't be stubborn, learn how Autopilot works and what it can't do. Don't think Autopilot is "Hands-Free." If yes, then you are ignoring all the warnings and etc. However, why be stubborn when safety is involved? How people label something influences their behavior.

Tesla Autopilot works by learning from other cars

Keep in mind, that the way Tesla's Autopilot it working it's still learning. It's not a perfect system. It's constantly learning from other cars in the Tesla fleet and improving. The camera, radar, ultrasonic sensors and GPS all work together to constantly provide real-time feedback from the Tesla fleet. This data is then used to improve the overall system. So, while your car is still learning, how can you fully trust it?

Here is a good video from the Wired magazine discussing how Tesla's self-driving Autopilot actually works.

10 Tips from Business Insider How Tesla Autopilot Works

1. Tesla's Autopilot system is made up of multiple sensors placed all around the car. These sensors help the car understand its environment so that it can safely steer itself in most highway situations.
2. These ultrasonic sensors are strategically placed around the car so that they can sense 16 feet around the car in every direction, at any speed.
3. The radar enables detection of cars and other moving objects.
4. The forward-facing camera is located on the top windshield. A computer inside the camera helps the car understand what obstacles are ahead of the car.
5. To activate Autopilot, you simply pull the cruise control stalk towards you twice and the car will take over steering.
6. While Autopilot is activated, the car is capable of steering within a lane, changing lanes, managing the speed of the car, and controlling braking while driving on the highway.
7. The car will show you in the instrument control panel what traffic, obstacles, and lane markings it is detecting.
8. While Autopilot can do most of the driving while cruising down the highway, drivers should always keep their hands on the wheel.
9. Tesla's Autopilot system is also constantly learning from other cars in the Tesla fleet and improving.
10. Over-the-air updates are used to continually improve the system and add new features to the Autopilot system, like your phone.

If you are a Tesla driver, let us know how you use Autopilot. If you have some safety tips, please share them below in the comments section for discussion. You never know, they may help to save lives of many.


kent beuchert (not verified)    January 29, 2018 - 10:53AM

An automotive autopilot is a bad joke being advanced by morons. IN a plane, the advantage of an autopilot is the lack of obstacles in the air. The driivng environment is hopelessly complicated and non standard, with other objects continuously moving around.

Angel (not verified)    January 30, 2018 - 3:45PM

A couple week ago, in a heavy raining day (we don't get rain very often in Southern California), it was difficult to see the lane, at first I was not sure if I should use Autopilot, The white lane on the screen show very clear and accurate. It was an easy decision to make after all. Autopilot all the way home.

Charles (not verified)    January 30, 2018 - 3:46PM

Auto Pilot does nothing to help my stress level in traffic. It is not the act of moving my feet and hands in traffic that stresses me out. It is simply being surrounded by thousands of assholes that stresses me out. Autopilot can't help with that.

Scott (not verified)    January 31, 2018 - 7:42PM

I have always told people I am more relaxed doing the driving. My mind can go into an Autopilot. When my car is on Autopilot I am constantly watching and worrying about it screwing up.