I tried Tesla's Autopilot -- and it was absolutely nerve-racking, at first

Kristina SkinnerTesla’s Autopilot was scary to use at first, but I eventually saw how it can be useful.
  • Tesla‘s Autopilot can assist drivers by keeping a car in its lane and adjusting its speed based on surrounding traffic, among other features.
  • In June, I tried Autopilot for the first time in a Model 3 on crowded, New York City streets.
  • Using Autopilot was scary at first, as I had trouble letting the system handle any amount of driving without my input, even with my hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
  • But I eventually realised how it could ease some of the foot and ankle fatigue driving on crowded streets can cause.

As the auto industry moves toward self-driving vehicles, it finds itself in an uncomfortable position. Today’s consumer cars can’t drive themselves – and aren’t close. But they can give drivers enough assistance that some become too comfortable and overestimate their car’s autonomous driving capabilities.

Tesla‘s Autopilot was a pioneer among semi-autonomous systems. In its current iteration, it can keep a car in its lane and adjust its speed based on surrounding traffic, among other features, but it has attracted controversy due to a series of high-profile accidents.

Tesla has pointed to statistics that link Autopilot with lower accident and fatality rates and said it has made clear to customers that they must be alert when using the system. Critics say Tesla’s favourite statistics don’t isolate Autopilot’s effect on safety and argue that, despite Tesla’s warnings, the system breeds complacency in drivers who eventually place too much faith in it.

In June, I tried Autopilot and drove a Model 3 for the first time on crowded, New York City streets. I spent under 30 minutes with the feature in a single environment, so I wasn’t able to come to a definitive conclusion about how effective it is, but in my brief time with the feature, I got a sense of how it can be useful in heavy traffic, and how even limited, semi-autonomous driving systems represent a big shift in automotive technology.

Here’s what happened when I drove a Model 3 and tried Autopilot for the first time.


The Model 3 is Tesla’s first mass-market car.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Tesla launched the Model 3 in July 2017 and has struggled to ramp up production. On July 2, the company announced that it hit a production milestone CEO Elon Musk previously said it would meet by the end of 2017.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

The Model 3 starts at $US35,000, though only higher-priced versions are currently available.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

With a long-range battery, it has a range of 310 miles. With a standard battery, it has a range of 220 miles.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

You can open the car with a key that’s roughly the size and weight of a credit card.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

The Model 3’s dashboard has a strikingly minimalist design.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Most of the car’s settings are controlled through a 15-inch touchscreen.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

The Model 3 seats a total of five people.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

This was my first time driving a Model 3, and I spent most of it in stop-and-go traffic. I found the car’s regenerative braking system to be useful in that environment.

Kristina Skinner

Regenerative braking is unique to electric vehicles. After the driver’s foot is taken off the accelerator, regenerative braking slows a car down more quickly than a gas-powered car would. This means that, in some instances, the driver won’t have to switch between the accelerator and brake pedals in heavy traffic. Instead, the driver can just use the accelerator pedal.


While some Model 3 reviews have said the touchscreen can be difficult to use, I found it easy to monitor essential information like speed and charge level after a short adjustment period. But I didn’t have to use it for more complex tasks.

Mark Matousek / Business Insider

Using Autopilot was scary at first. I had trouble letting the system handle any amount of driving without my input, even with my hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

Kristina Skinner

I had to override all of my driving instincts to let a car handle any driving functions beyond speed regulation. It was difficult to understand how drivers could eventually feel comfortable taking their hands off the wheel or eyes off the road for significant amounts of time, but I also have no sense of how my comfort with the feature would change over time.


After a few tries, I felt more comfortable letting Autopilot handle steering, stopping, and speed.

Kristina Skinner

In my time with Autopilot, I saw it stop, start, and make gentle turns without my input, and I realised how it could ease some of the foot and ankle fatigue driving on crowded streets can cause.

While I wasn’t able to test Autopilot on a highway to see how it would handle high speeds and long distances, I got a sense of how the first steps toward autonomy can make some of the least complicated and most irritating parts of driving easier.

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