Tesla’s Autopilot Mode Means You Can Take Your Hands Off The Wheel… Briefly

teslacurveWhile the word “autopilot” might conjure up images of sitting back with your feet up on the dashboard, hands behind your head as your car drives itself along, we’re still far from that reality. But Tesla says that a new software update for the Model S will allow drivers to let the car do some of the driving, though you’ll still need to put your hands on the wheel now and then.

As of last night, Tesla began pushing its Version 7.0 software release out to car owners, which will continue through the week. And though it’s far from a fully autonomous driving experience, Autopilot mode does allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel — briefly.

After a few seconds without your touch on the steering wheel, the car will alert the driver and ask you to touch the wheel again.

“We tell drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case, to exercise caution in the beginning,” Elon Musk said yesterday at a press event, as reported by Wire.com. “Over time, long term, you won’t have to keep your hands on the wheel — we explicitly describe this as beta.”

So what can you do with Autopilot, if you can’t sit in back and take a nap? Tesla says the software — in conjunction with radar, ultrasonic sensors and other hardware already installed in vehicles — allows Model S to “steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control.”

Vehicles must be going at least 18mph to enable Autopilot, making the function ideal for freeways or highways where traffic is pretty predictable.

It’s not truly driverless, Tesla notes, but instead, Autopilot “functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear.”

To be clear — drivers are liable for anything that happens when they’re behind the wheel, whether they’re touching it or not.

“The [human] pilot still makes the decision,” Ricardo Reyes, Tesla’s head of communications told Wired.com. “The car can say ‘something is happening, please pay attention,’ if something happens. We call it ‘Autopilot’ for a reason—you’re still in control here. It’s like a plane: It goes into autopilot, but the pilot still does things like takeoff and landing.”

So what if you don’t take control of the car when it starts beeping at you to hold the wheel? There’s a backup procedure — the car will eventually slow to a stop and put your hazard lights on.

Your Autopilot has arrived [Tesla Motors]
Tesla’s Cars Now Drive Themselves, Kinda [Wired.com]