Tesla Model S autopilot not quite ‘Look Ma, no hands’

Dana Hull
Bloomberg News

Tesla Motors Inc.’s new Autopilot features are a step toward the self-driving cars of the future. For now, though, drivers must keep their hands on the wheel.

Most of the time.

In a 20 minute test-drive last week, a Model S with the operating system that’s being rolled out to owners of newer Teslas competently handled Interstate 280 — the curvy venture capital superhighway that connects San Francisco to San Jose.

Drivers engage the lane-keeping feature that Tesla calls Autosteer by double-pulling on the cruise-control stalk. A blue Autosteer indicator appears on the instrument panel, and he or she sets the ideal speed and the distance they want to maintain behind the car in front. It switches off when the driver takes control of the steering wheel.

To change lanes: Turn on the blinker, and the vehicle does the job of physically moving to the adjacent lane.

But if there’s an accident, Tesla says the human behind the wheel is liable.

“The hardware and the software are not yet at the point where a driver can abdicate responsibility,” Chief Executive Officer Elon Musksaid Wednesday during an event with journalists at the company’s Palo Alto, California, headquarters. “That will come at some point in the future, but it’s not the case today. These are still the early days.”

The technical capabilities have raced out ahead of regulatory and legal systems — cars can drive pretty much drive hands-free, but Tesla, like Mercedes-Benz, Honda and other carmakers, can’t allow it, because of liability issues.

“The technology is waiting for regulations to catch up — and not just on a national level but internationally as well,” said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst and automotive practice leader at Gartner Inc.

Requiring drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel is also a safety net for automakers, he said, because it means that the human driver can intervene as needed, such as if a sensor failure causes the system to shut off. Not letting consumers ignore the road completely “reduces some of the excitement” about the technology, but it’s an important stage in its development, he said in an e-mail.

“It takes time for consumers to trust the technology,” Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Automotive, said in a telephone interview. “It took a long time for people to become comfortable with adaptive cruise control.”

Tesla started equipping the Model S with hardware — radar, a forward-looking camera, 12 long-range sensors, GPS — to enable the autopilot features about a year ago. The hardware now comes standard on the Model S, as well as the recently released Model X sport utility vehicle. Retrofitting older Model S sedans would be tricky.

Musk said Tesla can probably develop acompletely self- driving car in about three years. Though fully autonomous vehicles would likely require additional sensors and 360-degree cameras, as well as regulatory changes to address liability issues.

“I think Tesla will have a car that can do full autonomy in about three years,” said Musk. “Maybe a bit sooner, but I am trying to recalibrate my time predictions. I’m confident that in three years, the car will be able to take you from point to point — like from your driveway to work — without you touching anything. You could even be asleep the whole time, and do so very safely. But getting regulatory approval for full autonomy will vary by jurisdiction.”

On Thursday, Model S owners who got Tesla’s 7.0 software through an over-the-air update were already downloading it. James Hilden-Minton of Atlanta was installing it while at work and said he plans to try the Autopilot features on his commute home.

“My commute is about 12 miles of surface streets, stop and go, 40+ minutes,” he said in a Twitter message. “Very tedious, so I value” Autopilot.