I tried Tesla's new Autopilot feature that helps navigate during highway driving to see if it's helpful — here's the verdict

Matthew DeBord/BINot quite fully autonomous, but getting there.
  • “Navigate on Autopilot” enables a properly equipped Tesla vehicle to follow a GPS navigation route on a highway.
  • The system can also merge onto highways, exit, and pass slower-moving traffic.
  • The system requires a relatively high level of driver engagement.

Tesla recently rolled out a software update for its “Autopilot,” a semi-self-driving technology. Called “Navigate on Autopilot,” it enables a Tesla vehicle that’s equipped with the requisite set of sensors, cameras, and radars – and that’s had “Enhanced Autopilot” enabled for $US5,000 – to drive the car through a greater range of situations than before and to follow a route in the GPS navigation system.

I met up with several Tesla representatives and their brand-new Model 3 sedan in New Jersey to sampled the upgrade.

I’ll cut to the chase. For years now, I’ve argued that Tesla Autopilot should be a hands-on-the-wheel-at-all-times technology, and that Tesla shouldn’t let a new owner or lessee leave the store without an “Autopilot 101” tutorial. In practice, Autopilot does prompt drivers to periodically engage in steering-wheel inputs when Autopilot is active. But drivers can release the wheel for brief stretches.


Read more:
I drove a $US57,500 Tesla Model 3 for a week to see if it’s practical for everyday driving – here’s the verdict

I’ll get into how Navigate on Autopilot works in a second. For now, the best thing about the new technology is that it raises the level of engagement required of the driver. The biggest risk of Autopilot and other semi-self-driving systems is that they reduce situational awareness, quickly removing drivers from the act of fully controlling their vehicles. Navigate on Autopilot brings situational awareness back.

So how does it work?

Tesla Nav on AutopilotTeslaTouch the blue button.

Well, for starters, it has to be enabled (by the way, I sampled the tech in New Jersey, but these images are from a drive in California and were provided by Tesla).

That’s achieved via (in my case) the Model 3’s central touchscreen. Once you give it the OK and input a route through the navigation system, Navigate on Autopilot will become active when Autopilot itself is in operation, and it’s only available for highway operation. You have to touch the blue “Navigate on Autopilot” button on the turn-by-turn directions to make it work.

At a basic level, Navigate on Autopilot can drive a Tesla up a highway on-ramp, suggest lane changes and passing maneuvers while it follows a plotted route, and it can exit a highway prior to returning control to the driver. This makes Autopilot somewhat more “point-to-point” than it was before, and as CEO Elon Musk has noted, is a needed step toward full self-driving capability.

Tesla Nav on AutopilotTeslaLane changes are suggested by a grey line.

NOAP, as I’ll refer to it, benefits from a high level of fleet learning, and, as with anything a Tesla with the right sensor set has encountered, can be used to manage merging speeds and take a more intelligent approach to things like pre-exit lane changes.

NOAP will also suggest or deny passing maneuvers, and the boldness with which it approaches those moves can be set anywhere from Mild to “Mad Max,” for impatient drivers (Average in between.)

A double-pull-down of the transmission stalk on the right side of the Model 3’s steering wheel brings Autopilot online, and we’re off. Pretty quickly, the systems take over steering for an on-ramp, modulating speed to keep everything safe. I then have to increase the preset adaptive cruise-control speed to a highway velocity – and respond to the Autopilot prompts when it’s time to provide a bit of steering-wheel engagement.

Tesla Nav on AutopilotTeslaThe red line means no-go for a lane change.

The Autopilot screen, on the far-left side of the central touchscreen, draws a blue line in front of the vehicle, mimicking the route guidance on the navigation system. When a slow-moving truck appears in front of us, NOAP suggest a passing manoeuvre and draws it in grey. It’s then up to me to confirm that it’s safe to pass and use the turn signal to execute.

If an obstacle shows up on the Tesla’s sensor range – such as another vehicle off our starboard side – NOAP creates a red line that prohibits the pass.

Then, when it’s time to line up in a lane for exiting, NOAP also offers that indication. When it hits the exit, it slows for the curve, then returns control for slower driving (it gives the driver a distance countdown).

Tesla Nav on AutopilotTeslaNav on Autopilot gives you a distance countdown before its deactivates.

On balance, I can do all of this more seamlessly myself, but it’s early days for this type of semi-autonomous technology. For now, NOAP is fairly impressive for what it can do, and more importantly, for how much safety it brings to the process.

What it can’t do

What it can’t do is mainly apply old-fashioned driving habits, learned by me decades ago – such as changing lanes to the left around on-ramp merges to allow new traffic onto the highway. Or to shift to the left when stopped cars or emergency vehicles are on the shoulder. Those are very, very human situations, however. I wouldn’t expect a self-driving car with far more advanced aspirations that a Tesla using NOAP to be able to handle them.

A human situation that NOAP goes a long way toward improving is simply dealing with following a route. Even with modern GPS, it’s easy to screw up, miss a turn, and end up frustrated. NOAP alleviates some of that stress. Add this to Autopilot’s already noted ability to deal with slow, stop-and-go traffic and you have a helpful, stress-reducing technology that will likely alleviate mishaps.

I’m not really a heavy-duty Autopilot user, mainly because I like actually driving Teslas too much (to be fair, I don’t make much use of old-school cruise control unless I’m on long highway jaunts). For Autopilot enthusiasts, I can easily see how NOAP will initially demand a learning curve, but over the long term will prevent the temptation to let the system take over too much of the driving act.

That’s a big deal. NOAP definitely improved Autopilot, but also fixes what I think is the technology’s main drawback.

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