What is Tesla AutoPilot, and is it really Full Self-Driving?

Posted on

The world of ‘self-driving’ is full of all kinds of marketing jargon that causes a lot of confusion for both customers and the media. If you believe everything Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweets, we’re all about to just put our cars at a destination and let them drive us there without interfering, right? While Musk is a polarizing figure — and despite the technology’s confusing and possibly even misleading name — his AutoPilot system is simply a name for Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system. In fact, it is not a fully self-driving system.

It’s also different and separate from Tesla’s more advanced Full Self Driving technology package, which itself has a misleading name. Here’s what you need to know to understand AutoPilot and what it can and cannot do.

Read more: All our latest Tesla Autopilot news

What is ADAS and what does it have to do with AutoPilot?

ADAS stands for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. It is a term from the automotive industry that companies use as a collective term for the technology that makes driving safer and more comfortable. ADAS can include everything from blind spot warning and lane departure warning to more advanced systems such as adaptive cruise control and lane assist. Some ADAS systems are very sophisticated, allowing the driver to take their feet and hands off the controls while the car is moving (and while ADAS is on) and adapt to the speed of traffic around the vehicle without crashing. Others aren’t nearly as advanced. It really depends on the type of technology incorporated into a vehicle and how successfully it is implemented.

AutoPilot is Tesla’s marketing term for an ADAS system that includes an adaptive cruise system that, when active, modulates speed and distance based on traffic, road conditions and speed limits on specific mapped roads. It also includes a lane-centering steering assist system that Tesla calls “Autosteer,” which helps your vehicle stay in its lane as the road bends and undulates. Other brands offer these kinds of features.

Most ADAS systems have specific physical parameters that must be met before the system can be turned on. For example, as with other adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering systems, the sensors around the vehicle must have at least one or two clear lane markings on either side of the car to keep the vehicle centered in the lane. Adaptive cruise uses cameras around the vehicle (although older models also had radar) to maintain a set speed and distance from vehicles in front of and around it.

Read more: What is Adaptive Cruise Control?

What is “self-driving” and why is AutoPilot not a fully autonomous driving system?

This brings us to the subject of ‘self-driving’ and ‘autonomous vehicles’. These terms are often thrown around by Musk and his fans, especially when it comes to claims that Tesla vehicles can self-drive with AutoPilot. The reality is that there are currently no legal, fully self-driving vehicles on the road, no matter what Elon Musk or his marketing department say.

That’s because autonomous driving is highly regulated and clearly defined by various governing bodies, both here in the United States and around the world. To understand why Tesla’s AutoPilot is not a self-driving system, you must first understand how these regulatory bodies define self-driving or autonomous driving.

There are two major governing bodies that help define this sort of thing: the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (aka NHTSA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (aka SAE). According to these two governing bodies, there are six levels of autonomy ranging from level 0 to level 5. As you move up each level, you essentially remove the need for human interaction from the driving equation. As you move up the scale toward level 5, you may be able to withdraw both your attention and your physical body more and more from the driver’s seat. Here’s how the levels break down:

    Level 0: Also known as independent driving without any assistance. You accelerate, you steer, you brake. It’s just you, your car and the laws of physics. Level 1: At Level 1 you get some automation. This means that your car is able to manage simple inputs one by one. These include things like standard cruise control or lane departure warning. The first consumer cars with cruise control (which ironically was called Auto-pilot) came from Chrysler in 1968. Level 2: At this level, you can use two or more automated systems to drive at the same time. That means, for example, that your cruise control is now pretty smart. You still need to set the speed, but once it’s enabled, the car can automatically slow down if there’s a car in front of you, or speed up if the coast is clear. It can also be combined with Lane Keeping Assist (makes sure you don’t stray from your lane) and the more advanced lane-centering steering assist (steers a lot of the wheel for you, but you have to keep one hand on the wheel). While AutoPilot is a very advanced adaptive cruise control, even Tesla has admitted that it is a Level 2 system. AutoPilot has come under fire from NHTSA, the FTC, and politicians for the deadly crashes caused by Musk’s repeated, misleading claims that AutoPilot is a fully autonomous system. GM’s Super Cruise and Ford’s BlueCruise are Level 2 systems. Level 3: This is what is known as conditional automation, which means that if specific conditions are met (such as correct lane markings, road signs and weather conditions, on certain stretches of highway), the car can exert a limited amount of self-driving power without humans are required inputs – but with the requirement that a human can take over at any time if the system does not detect the required inputs. The new 2023 Mercedes-Benz S-Class offers an optional package called DrivePilot, which is a true, legal, conditional Level 3 system. Level 4 and Level 5: These two levels are different degrees of autonomous driving. Level 4 still offers a steering wheel or mechanism that a human can take over, while level 5 removes the steering wheel controls completely. These two phases are still a long way off. There are currently no Level 4 or Level 5 autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Only at level 5 autonomy can you safely jump in the back seat of your car and take a nap or eat a pizza.

AutoPilot Levels

There are currently two levels of AutoPilot that Tesla offers: “Basic AutoPilot” and “Full Self-Driving”.

Basic AutoPilot comes on all Teslas and includes ADAS systems such as adaptive cruise, lane centering and lane assist and emergency braking.

Customers can decide to “upgrade” by paying as much as $12,000, to “Full Self-Driving” or FSD. At the FSD level, customers gain access to systems that can help them “call up” their Tesla from a parking lot (although there have been many instances of crashes, such as this Tesla who drove himself in a $3 million private jet while using the system). ), stop sign control and automatic lane change. Tesla rolled out (then rolled back) an “Assertive” mode for its FSD system, which rolled stop signs, reduced the next distance and made some questionable left turns. Tesla had to remove its Assertive Mode because of the risky (and illegal) behavior.

Read more: All our latest autonomous vehicle news

Is AutoPilot a self-driving system?

Absolutely not. Tesla’s AutoPilot is a level 2 system that amounts to a suite of advanced driver safety systems that make driving a little less stressful. Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” system is also not a self-driving system, as it still requires human input. Just in case it repeats, you should never leave the driver’s seat, take a nap or take your eyes off the road when using any of these systems, as they pose a risk to both your own life and that of the drivers around you. While AutoPilot is a tool that can be used to make driving easier, it is not a fully self-driving system.

Related video: