Tesla Autopilot review: We test Elon Musk’s autonomous tech in the UK

Like it or not, driverless cars are just around the corner. Most already have semi-autonomous driving systems like lane-keeping and autonomous emergency braking – and driverless systems like Telsa’s Autopilot join all these systems up together to replicate an human driver. Although it’s still a work in progress, Tesla’s Autopilot represents one of the smartest and most developed autonomous systems on the road, and that’s why I took it for a test-drive – sort of – UK roads recently. The Tesla Autopilot system is already available in the Model S and Model X, and soon it’ll be in the Tesla Model 3 too. Here are my first impressions and a full review of the Tesla Autopilot system.

Tesla Autopilot UK review

Tesla’s Autopilot is currently only suitable for motorways – despite what you’ll find on YouTube, and that means we had to actually drive the car ourselves before we could test the Autopilot. The Model S isn’t a light car, and weighs 2,108kg, but you’d hardly ever notice. Tesla keeps most of the weight as low as possible, and when combined with the car’s outrageous torque, the Model S handles and moves much faster than it should.

Although you can feel the substantial weight of the car at lower speeds, the acceleration is so immediate and direct that Tesla Model S always feels like it’s breaking the laws of physics. Combine that immediate power with its total lack of noise and at times the Model S feels like playing a computer game.

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Tesla Autopilot review: Summoning the Autopilot

After getting on the motorway near Heathrow, it was time to test the Tesla’s much-publicised Autopilot function – the reason for our visit.

Introduced in Tesla’s Version 7.0 software update, Autopilot combines a forward radar, forward-facing camera and 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors to “see” up to 16ft around the car at any speed. The result? The Model S has a 360-degree view of all traffic.

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For Autopilot to engage, Tesla’s system needs to be able to “see” the road clearly and sense the markings on the road – one of the reasons why it doesn’t work in bad weather. When all conditions are met, a graphic between the Model S’ dials shows that the car is detecting the road ahead. After that, engaging Autopilot is as simple as pulling the Tesla’s left stick twice.

Tesla Autopilot review: Autonomous mode

To begin with, Autonomous mode feels a lot like your average adaptive cruise control. Like many systems nowadays, you can set the speed limit of the car and select the distance to the car in front – but soon it becomes clear much more is going on.

With my hands tentatively touching the steering wheel, Autonomous mode seems pretty straight forward – until a car in front of us indicates off. Sensing a new, larger gap to the car in front, Autopilot automatically speeds up and zeroes in on the back of the car in front. It’s at this point that I realise I’m not really in control at all.

It’s pretty scary when the Tesla accelerates without us touching the pedal, but on bends it’s even more unsettling. As we approach a bend on the motorway, I’m essentially putting my life in the hands of the car, and watching the steering wheel gradually turn in my hands is a brand-new, and pretty frightening experience. For at least the first ten minutes, the Tesla Model S Autopilot feels like the scariest ride you’ve ever been on.

But then it changes. After the first few bends, I have more confidence in the Tesla’s Autopilot, and slowly realise it’s not going to drive off me the road. And that’s when Autopilot begins to feel like the future. I’m aware of my surroundings and have my hands on the wheel, but Autopilot is doing the legwork for me most of the time – and it’s making the journey much less stressful.

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Other things make the software more intuitive, too. A graphic between the dials shows the car along with all the traffic around it, and even detects the difference between lorries, motorbikes and cars. Although it’s a small touch, it shows that the Model S is well aware of other drivers – and makes me much more confident that the Tesla knows what it’s doing.

In fact, I’m now so confident in the Tesla that I’m about to let it change lanes for me. After doing proper observations, I indicate to the right, wait for the Autopilot to double-check, and then turn for me. What happens next presents the only real criticism I have of Autopilot at the moment.

The Model S needs your hands to be firmly holding the wheel when it conducts the lane change, but it also turns the wheel itself. The result? You feel like you’re almost fighting with the car, and it introduces a level of stress that you don’t feel in the rest of the experience. Despite that, the car completes the manoeuvre as smoothly as you’d expect.

I’m driven around by the Model S for another 45 minutes or so, but the rest of the journey feels considerably more calm. After less than an hour, autonomous driving feels just as natural as cruise control – and I’m more than happy to let Autopilot take bends and change lanes for me.

After writing about Tesla’s Autopilot mode for the last few months, using it is an anti-climax of sorts. Although it’s a novelty at first, autonomous driving soon dissolves into the everyday processes of driving – and that’s an exciting prospect. Despite using Autopilot for just a short time, it’s easy to see why autonomous driving will be the future of transport.

READ NEXT: Tesla Model S review

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