In covering technology news and reviewing consumer devices, there have been a few times when we've used a new technology that gives us a glimpse of the future. The first time I pinched to zoom a photo on the first iPhone. Successfully printing a test cube on the original MakerBot. Putting a Phantom 2 quadcopter into the sky to shoot stabilized 1080p video. Turning my head around to look behind me while wearing the Oculus DK1. Each of those rare moments are a confluence of complex technologies coming together to pull off a incredible feat that "just works". They're the kind of things that stick with you for a while. Or even show up in your dreams. And this past week, I've been having dreams about Tesla's autopilot.
I went for a test drive of the new Tesla Model X last Thursday, courtesy of Tested reader Christian (who also let us test drive his Model S a few years back). The Model X is the crossover version of the Model S, incorporating all of the updates that have come since the S launched over three years ago. It has AWD, a 250 mile max range, and even Tesla's ludicrous speed option , which slams your breath to the back of your throat while going from 0 to 60 in 3.3 seconds. We'll have a full video this week covering the other features of the car, but the thing I was really curious to try was Tesla autopilot, an optional feature on the newest Model S's and the X.
We took Christian's Model X onto the freeway south of San Francisco, right at the end of rush hour. With Christian behind the wheel, he explained how autopilot is flipped on in two stages: first by enabling adaptive cruise control, and then flipping the same lever again to enable automatic steering. ACC is a pretty standard feature on new cars; it uses radar systems to adjust your car speed to maintain a set distance from cars in front of you (typically measured in car lengths, and dependent on speed). Autopilot takes that one step further with optical cameras that can see lane markers and keep the car centered in your lane while going at full speed.
And it works. I took my turn in the driver's seat, taking my feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel while we sped down the freeway, the car automatically and comfortably maneuvering the gentle curves of the road at 75 miles per hour. No amount of rational reinforcement beforehand could've prepared my brain for the surreal feeling sitting in the driver's seat and watching the pedals depress and steering wheel turn on its own. My eyes were were still glued to the road and I was still doing doing all the situational awareness calculations I would be doing if I was the one doing the driving, but with that very same data about the distance of other cars were around me visualized right on the dashboard screen. The car had a sense of the distance of speed of other vehicles in the vicinity, showing me color-coded cars in front of me to illustrate their distance, even identifying motorcycles that passed by in between lanes. I could flip the signal light switch and the Model X would make the lane change automatically, speeding up to an open spot in the next lane. After about 15 minutes or so driving with autopilot, I felt at ease with it, comfortable enough to have a conversation with Christian in the passenger's seat without tensing up at every micromovement made by the car.