The best feature of the Tesla Model S isn't what you think it would be. It's not the insane acceleration, the luxurious interior or even that massive screen it's packing. It's the fact that if you buy one, you're driving a rolling piece of tech that can be updated and made better with new software over time. I test drove the new software last weekend, which includes the funky Autopilot feature. The result? A Model S that essentially drives itself.
So, what is Tesla Autopilot? It's 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. You still have to steer, of course, but that's to be expected.
In Layman's terms? It's cruise control 2.0.
We've experienced something similar on Audi vehicles before, but it's never been as smooth or easy to use as it is on the Model S.
To activate the Autopilot, there's a stalk on the left hand side of the steering wheel, underneath the indicator stalk. Push it down once and it keeps you at your current speed. Flicking the stalk up while the Autopilot is active increases your speed by 5km/h per flick, while depressing the stalk reduces it by the same amount. Activating Autopilot sees the car's network of sensors fire up to track your location on the road, and more importantly, the location of other cars around you. It then "locks on" to the car in front and matches speed, acceleration and deceleration so you always maintain a consistent distance from its back bumper.
You can tell the system to keep a distance of anything from one car length up to seven car lengths. I imagine you'd only need seven car lengths if you were covertly surveilling someone, and if that's the case, get a less conspicuous car.
Unlike other laser-guided cruise systems we've driven, the radar-guided, sensor-enabled Tesla Autopilot feature "sees" further ahead and almost anticipates the movement of traffic at speed.
For example, I jumped on the freeway and set the cruise to 120km/h (sorry, officer). That automatically triggers the Autopilot, which I told to lock-on to and follow the car in front, leaving a single car-length gap for safety. Not only did the Model S leave the required single car length, it also added a small cushioning distance which would be required to stop the car at that speed should something go wrong. It's smart, and knows it's going to take you longer to stop at 120km/h than it is at 60km/h, and adjusts the experience accordingly. It's smarter, safer and more intelligent than you are.
It works at any speed, as well. While other cruise control systems shut off at under 40km/h, the Autopilot system stays locked on to its surroundings even at 2km/h crawling through Sydney's notorious morning traffic. When you come to a stop, the Autopilot holds you in place so you don't roll back or forward, and politely signals you when it notices that the forward car it's tracking starts consistently moving away. "Tap accelerator pedal to resume", it dings. Single tap and you're back on the road, moving as fast or as slow as the traffic ahead.
It's not a self-driving car, it's a smarter car. It's a feature that takes you from a full-time driver to an enthusiast. You can let the car accelerate and brake itself in boring traffic, while also taking over on the faster, bendier, more fun roads.
The only real issue we found with it was when the car in front of you started to decelerate in order to merge into a turning lane. The car tracks it all the way through to the turning lane, and triggers a pretty rapid deceleration in some circumstances which means you might have to take over so as not to slow the flow of traffic behind you. It's not an issue unique to the Model S Autopilot, but one worth noting all the same.
Other features in software update 6.1 include a power consumption calculator, which allows you to set a destination in your GPS navigation software and know how much battery you'll have left when you get there. It tells you if you won't make it on your single charge, or if you need to slip into a more economical driving style along the way to save power. For someone like me who freaks out about charge level when my phone drops below 60 per cent battery, it's a must-have and must-use feature.
Improvements continue right through to a better in-dash entertainment experience through TuneIn Radio and a better reversing camera system that measures objects around you to a distance of 25cm so you can get really close when moving into tight parking spaces.
Tesla is 100 per cent delivering on the promise of a driving experience that gets better over time with the Model S, and I can't wait to see what's next from this bonkers car.