Self-driving cars are not ready to sweep the world…yet. By the most conservative estimates, it might take another decade to make autonomous-drive features standard in cars. With that out of the way, most drivers are amazed when they learn what they are capable of in 2016, especially the Tesla Autopilot system that has won over the tech community. A Model S can now make runs of 60 miles or longer without much of any driver interaction.
Daniel Sparks, a tech specialist for the investment website Motley Fool, covered 61 miles in a Model S P90D without engaging the accelerator, brake pedal, or steering wheel. Sticking exclusively to the highway setting Autopilot was made for, Sparks claimed to have only touched the wheel once — to avoid an encroaching truck — in the 81-mile journey from Monument, Col. to Colorado City.
Using the navigation technology and sensors that respond to vehicles in and around it, the system changes lanes, holds steady, and adjusts speeds as needed. According to a report in MIT Technology Review, a driver has to establish a certain driving environment (e.g., a freeway) before letting go of the wheel. But from that point on, Autopilot can take charge, which led MIT to name it one of the breakthrough technologies of 2016.
Tesla is not the only automaker working to perfect this technology. Ford, GM, and Toyota are trying to take the lead in autonomous driving as the capabilities develop. Car and Driver recently compared the semi-autonomous capabilities of the Model S against a Mercedes S65 AMG, BMW 750i, and Infiniti Q50S.
In a 50-mile test that included 60% of highway time, the Model S Autopilot came out ahead as the “clear winner” in the test. Yet even Tesla has trouble in city driving. During a 2016 test, a Motor Trend driver had to grab the wheel on one occasion when his Model S veered to the left. At another point, he remarks that he would have collided with another vehicle had he not taken the wheel.
Highway driving is more straightforward, even when the lane changes and potential exits are confusing. Mapping systems generally know which way they are going and don’t have to look at signs or worry about jockeying for lane position. On the other hand, self-driving systems handle autonomous parking in the city, a feature that appeals to car owners hoping to avoid battle scars from other vehicles on the street.
Self-driving cars can get you long distances without requiring much in the way of input. You might consider it an advanced cruise-control system that takes the sting out of highway travel. For commuters facing lengthy round trips on a daily basis, the best autonomous driving systems already deliver a winning feature of future cars.
Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY