Tesla Autopilot's Biggest Problem Is Other People

Image: Tegan Jones/Gizmodo Australia

A truck merges in front of me - definitely closer than the three-car gap I had programmed. My car responds by braking somewhat suddenly. A horn beeps from behind. A small hatchback is riding the rear. It changes lanes, speeds past and continues to weave in between the other vehicles that are going about their business.

The automatic breaking wouldn't be a problem if the driver behind me wasn't driving so close.

I swallowed the Wollongong-shaped urge in my gut to flip him off, and instead reflect on the scenario.

See, I'm about 4 hours into testing Autopilot on a brand new Tesla Model S. And what just happened on the Pacific Highway at 11pm was the problem with the entire system. People are dickheads.

To put it more politely, there isn't a great deal of room for human error or behaviour. People are always going to do sudden and unexpected things on the road. Meanwhile, Autopilot does things by the book.

Image: Tegan Jones/Gizmodo Australia

These two elements coming together on the road is not ideal, particularly when you consider the current Australian legislation surrounding autonomous driving. There isn't any. In fact, there are over 700 laws currently prohibiting autonomous vehicles from being driven publicly in Australia.

Our laws don't contain terminology that adequately covers autonomous vehicles in the case of law-breaking or accidents — nobody can really be held responsible.

I got a small taste of how problematic this truly is during my time with Autopilot on the Model S — and we're only at the fledgling stage of self-driving vehicles. I also understand why I had to read and agree to an incredibly thorough terms and agreement.

It's worth stating here that Tesla's Autopilot is perfectly legal. Although it does involve forms of autonomous driving, it is more akin with cruise control than kicking back and letting the car take control. You're required to keep your hands on the wheel at all times. You need to be alert and ready to take back over if need be.

Image: Tegan Jones/Gizmodo Australia

In my short experience, that need cropped up a lot. And it never seemed to be due to a problem with the car. When conditions were ideal, it ran like a dream. And thankfully, that was most of the time. I had great experiences letting it drive itself on the Princes Highway down to Wollongong, as well as on roads around the lower Blue Mountains.

I liked feeling the wheel turn itself ever so slightly beneath my fingertips. After a little while it felt as natural as the car's regenerative braking system, which slows down the car when you take the foot off the accelerator. This is particularly convenient in heavy traffic situations.

Never letting go of that wheel

Thanks to the Sat Nav, the Model S knew what to cap its speed at when in Autopilot. Whenever there were unaccounted speed discrepancies, such as roadworks on the M5 reducing the speed from 110 to 80km, there is a paddle that allows you to manually cap the speed limit easily.

I also had no trouble whatsoever with auto merging, which you can trigger by putting the blinker on. The car always changed lanes during a large, safe gap. It also just felt super cool and slick. I think my mum put it best when she said that the car changed lanes smoother than I did. Harsh but fair.

Perhaps best of all, I had zero issues letting the Model S take control and parallel park itself — which is great if you're trash at it like I am. In fact, I got a child-like thrill out of the process every time it did it.

Despite the abundance of positive experiences and how comfortable I became with it, I never became so relaxed that taking my hands off the wheel crossed my mind. This was due to a couple of reasons. Firstly, the technology is so new and three days with it is not enough to undo an entire adulthood of driving the old fashioned way.

Image: Tegan Jones/Gizmodo Australia

Perhaps more pertinently — because there were too many times where if I hadn't been paying attention I could have been in some real trouble. The narrative I opened with was just once of many instances where Autopilot simply couldn't account for human behaviour — quick lane changes, sudden braking, driving too close.

People simply don't obey the road rules to a tee. Sure, I programmed the Autopilot to stay three car lengths behind the person in front, but that didn't stop the person behind me from riding my arse. And that was on a relatively clear highway late on a Friday night.

I don't want to detract from the fact that Autopilot does have controversy attached to it due to accidents overseas, some of which have been fatal. And while I am not in a position to comment on what may have happened in those situations and how much the manufacturing may have been to blame — I can now see how accidents so easily happen.

In its current form in Australia, Autopilot is truly a special experience. You feel like you're watching the future of the automotive industry play out in real time. I wanted it to be a permanent fixture in my life. But I was also acutely aware of how far we have to go until autonomous driving is truly safe.

It's going to take a long time for Autopilot features to be even close to perfect, and it will probably require largely taking control out of the hands of all humans on the road.

Australia Is Getting New Driving Laws For Autonomous Vehicles

Australia's transport ministers have announced new legislation that will allow automated vehicles to drive on our roads.

We are currently behind countries like the USA and China when it comes to adopting autonomous driving technology, and for a good reason. Current Australian driving laws lack adequate terminology when it comes to the use of autonomous cars. This means that no-one can be held responsible for both road rule compliance and accidents.

These new laws will change that.

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