Tesla Model S Autopilot: Australian Hands-On (Or: The Time I Damaged The Beautiful Car I Was Reviewing)

This is probably the most expensive story I’ve ever written. Not because we bought a Tesla Model S P90D, but because we kind of broke one. That’s right: I injured a unicorn to bring you a review of a new car feature. Are you not ENTERTAINED?!


What Is It?

Look before we get to that just know that I’m sad.

I hate — HATE — breaking things. I’ve only broken three review things in my years here at Gizmodo, which given how clumsy I am is a pretty mean feat.

Breaking the Tesla wasn’t spectacular — I scuffed the rim to the point that it needs to be fixed by technicians (endless sad face) — but it hurt the most by far. That comparison includes the time I knocked myself the fuck out on the goddamn pavement while reviewing the O-Chic “hoverboard”. That accident saw me land my 85kg frame onto a helpless MacBook Pro with Retina Display, practically bending it in half. Whoops.

It knocked me out for a few seconds to the hysterics of a construction crew who watched on, and I had to see a few doctors since. But not even that calamitous scene hurt me in the way that injuring a Tesla did. The body heals, whereas damaging a Tesla hurt my soul.

As I write this, just know that I’m suffering inner pain — and yes, we’re picking up the (not massively substantial) bill.

So, what were we testing, and was it worth it?

What Is It (For Real This Time)?

With the 7.0 software Tesla shipped to the Model S this week, a feature was unlocked that allows the car to drive in a semi-autonomous mode. Autopilot is actually two features rolled into the one system.

The first system we’ve actually tried out already: it’s the intelligent cruise control feature that Tesla debuted in the Model S’ 6.0 software update.

It’s powered by a series of ultrasonic sensors (12 to be exact) attached to the car which can see everything within five metres of the vehicle in all directions. There’s also a forward-facing radar and a forward-facing camera to sense traffic in front of you and lock onto it. You also get a new smart braking system to stop you in your tracks if anything goes wrong in front. What it does is give you the ability to follow traffic around at any speed for a smooth auto-acceleration and auto-braking experience.

Previously with this system, you’d have to steer the car yourself. Like some sort of 19th Century horse and cart driver. These days with the 7.0 software applied, the car steers for you.

Sorry, let’s just say that again. The car. Steers. ITSELF.


Those sensors track the lanes on the road to keep you on a clear heading, and all you need to do is keep your hands on (or near) the wheel to right it just in case the lanes start to fade or disappear entirely.

Using It

The engineers at Tesla better be wearing wizard capes 24/7, because autopilot is some goddamn magic. It’s incredible.

Autosteer isn’t meant to be used all the time. It’s designed to be a technology that guides you along the highway. You turn into the on-ramp, engage autosteer and set your cruise to 110km/h, and the car drives guides itself all the way to the off ramp. From there, you’re meant to turn the autosteer feature off, mostly because road markings in the city are a bit all over the place.

On the highway, I was dazzled by the feature. I was able to travel along the M2 at 110km/h, and the car required zero interaction from me to stay on course. It’s less impressive in the city due to weird lane markings all over the road, but that’s less of the Tesla’s fault and more of the City of Sydney’s.

The Tesla keeps you updated on your autosteering progress with a centred illustration of the car on your dashboard. When the car can see lanes, it highlights them in blue. The strength of the colour indicates the strength of the lock on the lane. For what it’s worth, the UI on the Model S has had refresh in version 7.0, doing for the car what iOS 7 did for the iPhone.

Paired with the smart cruise control, the Model S is able to keep up with traffic by locking onto the car in front, and keep you in your lane at all times, all by itself. I can’t stress how incredible it is to use.

Sure, it’s scary for the first few minutes to put almost complete faith in a computer looking for paint on a road, but it becomes almost natural after about an hour.

By far the scariest thing is getting the car to change lanes for you. Turning on the indicator in either direction while in autosteer forces the car into a merging manoeuvre after analysing the lane it’s moving into to check if there’s anything in your way. It’s so smooth and intelligent I could hardly believe it. It does wonders for your concentration and fatigue too.

Driving is a pretty stressful experience, especially in Sydney’s CBD. Your nerves can certainly be tested on the way out of the city, and once your there you have to concentrate just as hard to keep up with traffic on the freeway. Being able to press a button and relax after escaping the concrete jungle is massively helpful.

While I drove (or rather while the car drove me), I couldn’t help but think of my Dad. He’s commuted up and down one of Australia’s most dangerous stretches of road for 14 years, and in that time he’s had a few accidents due to driver fatigue. One of the more serious ones saw him roll his car, completely crushing the roof and filling him full of broken glass. It was an awful phone call for my mother to get, and now that I’m older, I understand exactly how she felt.

I’d love it if in future nobody ever had to get that phone call. The phone call that says their loved one is in a serious condition because they were driving while exhausted. I want to live in a world where we don’t have self-driving cars, but smarter cars that can prevent us from doing stupid shit. The new features on the Tesla Model S show us that world isn’t far off.

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