Autopilot is one of the reasons we paid $127,000 for the Model S P85D earlier this year. Companies from Google to Mercedes-Benz are working on cars that incorporate self-driving features. And with some self-driving features around for nearly a decade, we were intrigued by how Tesla might advance the technology.

We wanted to be in a position to test how Tesla could change how we drive, and potentially be a lifesaver by reducing driver error.

Since making an easy over-the-air upgrade to our P85D, we’ve had a few hours behind the wheel of the car with Autopilot. (Read our complete Tesla Model S P85D road test.)

How it Works

  • Set the cruise control speed and the car will adjust its speed according to the traffic flow and will even bring you down to a full stop if traffic gets bogged down. Once traffic starts moving, the car will resume its progress. Tesla calls this feature Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC).
  • To experience the full Autopilot system, you pull the cruise control stalk twice toward you to activate the Autosteer function, in addition to TACC.
  • Once set, the car will follow lane markings with the steering wheel moving by itself. Even if you have your hands on the wheel, you feel it tugging. Tesla warns that this is not a hands-free feature and that the driver must keep hands on the wheel; the Model S will display a warning otherwise, but unlike other cars, it won’t disengage the auto-steer.
Tesla Model S Software Update

We found Autopilot worked quite well, although some drivers would probably apply steering sooner when entering a curve—and return the wheel to the straight-ahead position earlier when exiting the turn—than the system does to have smoother transitions. The system needs clear lane markings or a car ahead to follow. The feature is unavailable on a winding country road; the car will display a note to that effect.

Signal a lane change and the Model S gracefully transitions into the intended lane—assuming the car senses that it is clear. Change your mind mid-course? No problem, the car will revert to its original lane if you’re no longer signaling. We’re not quite sure what advantage this provides over merely rotating the steering wheel slightly on its orbit, as both actions involve basically the same driver interaction with the car.

To have the car park itself, the Tesla needs to identify two parked cars with a sufficient gap between them and a curb. You then drive the car alongside the space at a low speed until you hear an audible “bing” and the letter P appears in the instrument cluster. Tap a button on the big screen to give the process the green light, and the car parks itself. No, the Tesla won’t park itself with you outside the car, nor deliver itself to you like a robotic valet.

While these features bring potential safety and convenience benefits, they won’t take you door-to-door—so don't check your email while driving, or expect the car to help drive you home after a night of bar hopping. And a self-driving car won’t get you off the hook with the law; it still qualifies as driving under the influence if you’re intoxicated. Distracted driving is a serious safety issue, even in a car with some autonomous driving capability. Tesla says drivers must remain fully engaged.

And while impressive, some of these features aren’t unique. Mercedes-Benz introduced active cruise control about a decade ago. Acura, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo models, to name a few, have lane-departure warning systems with active lane correction, so you feel the steering wheel tug under your palms to keep you in the lane, in case you failed to do so. (Watch our impressions of the "self-driving" Mercedes-Benz.)

Likewise, the automatic parking is not new. We first experienced this convenient feature in our 2007 Lexus LS 460 and since then it has proliferated into various Chrysler, Ford, and Volkswagen models, among others.

The key with Autopilot is that it incorporates all of these features, better approximating a self-driving car than any other current production model.

The Autopilot part of the software update works on cars built after September 2014. It also includes some changes for all Model S cars—an entirely new look for the dashboard instrument cluster and some graphic changes to icons in the giant iPad-like center touch screen.

Tesla says the Autopilot still is in the early stages, with further refinements and new functionality under development. Coming next: Version 7.1 of the software will enable the Model S to drive itself in and out of a garage.

Tryout out the new Autopilot self-park feature
Trying out out the new self-park feature.