How Tesla Autopilot works

How it Works
Drivers engage Traffic Aware Cruise Control and Autopilot in Model S and Model X by using the cruise control stalk on the left of the steering column; in Model 3, drivers use the gear selector stalk on the right of the steering column for those functions. A single pull on the stalk engages Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, and two successive pulls engages Autosteer. A grey steering wheel icon appears on the car’s display, next to the speedometer, when the system is available to engage. The icon appears highlighted in blue once the driver engages Autosteer. The system is intended for highway use.

Before enabling Autopilot, the driver first needs to agree to “keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times” and to always “maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle”. Subsequently, every time the driver engages Autopilot, they are shown a visual reminder to “keep your hands on the wheel”. Tesla’s advanced features like Autosteer, Navigate on Autopilot and Summon are disabled by default. Tesla does this to ensure that those using the feature do so knowingly and deliberately. To enable them, customers must go to the Autopilot Controls menu within the Settings tab and turn them on.

When Autopilot is in use, it measures the amount of torque that the driver applies to the steering wheel and, if insufficient torque is applied, an escalating series of audible and visual alerts again reminds the driver to place their hands on the wheel. Since the steering wheel rotates as it normally would when driving, the driver’s hands must move with the wheel. This helps ensure the driver is attentive, and that the steering wheel is properly oriented in the event the driver needs to take over. The system’s hands-on reminders and alerts are delivered based on each unique driving scenario, depending on numerous factors including speed, acceleration, road conditions, presence of other vehicles, obstacles detected, lane geometry, and other sensor inputs. If the driver repeatedly ignores those warnings, they will be locked out from using Autopilot during that trip.
This is designed to prevent driver misuse and is among the strongest driver-misuse safeguards of any kind on the road today. Additionally, if a driver tries to engage Autopilot when it is not available, they will be prevented from doing so. If a driver wants to initiate an automated lane change while Autopilot is use, they can simply engage the turn signal in the direction that they would like to move. The car will then wait for an opening to change lanes, and during that time drivers should still double check their blind spots and mirrors.

Navigate on Autopilot
To use Navigate on Autopilot, a driver must first enable the feature in the Autopilot Controls menu within the Settings tab, and then enter a destination into the navigation system. Navigate on Autopilot must be enabled for each unique trip via the Navigate on Autopilot button on the map’s turn-by-turn driving directions. If Navigate on Autopilot is not available for a drive, the button will not appear on the turn-by-turn direction list. Once Navigate on Autopilot is in use, the 360-degree visualization on the center display shows a single blue line indicating the path of travel. There are two types of lane changes while Navigate on Autopilot is in use: route-based lane changes which are designed to keep you on your navigation route, and speed-based lane changes, which are designed to keep your vehicle moving as close to your set speed as possible.

Navigate on Autopilot can be customized to a driver’s preferences with four different settings:

Enable at Start of Every Trip
Navigate on Autopilot can be set to automatically turn on each time a driver enters a navigation route. Once enabled, anytime a driver is on a highway and uses Autopilot with a location plugged into the navigation bar, the feature will be on by default.

Speed-Based Changes
There are four available settings for speed-based lane changes (Disabled, Mild, Average, or Mad Max). When enabled, Navigate on Autopilot’s speed-based lane changes will suggest transitions into adjacent lanes that are moving faster, in the event that your vehicle is traveling slower than the set cruise speed (for instance, if you approach a slow-moving car or truck ahead). The Mild setting suggests lane changes when you’re traveling significantly slower than your set speed, whereas Mad Max will suggest lane changes when traveling just below your set speed.

Require Lane Change Confirmation
If a driver selects ‘No’ to Require Lane Change Confirmation, lane changes will happen automatically, without requiring a driver to confirm them with the indicator stalk first. Drivers can choose how they wish to be notified about lane changes, giving them enough time to check their surroundings and determine whether they want to cancel the lane change before it’s made. Automatic lane changes can be cancelled by moving the car’s turn signal or by pressing the lane change cancellation pop-up notification on the car’s touchscreen. This feature does not make a car autonomous, and lane changes will only be made when a driver’s hands are detected on the wheel.

Lane Change Notification
Drivers can elect to get notified about an upcoming lane change by receiving an audible chime as well as a default visual prompt. Additionally, all cars made after August 2017 also have the option to have their steering wheel vibrate for the alert as well. Each of these notifications are meant to provide drivers with the opportunity to check their surroundings and determine whether they want to cancel the lane change before it’s made.

Other Autopilot Features
To use Autopark, a car must be driving at a very low speed on a street, and a “P” will appear on the Instrument Panel when a Tesla detects a parking spot. Then, a driver must put the car in reverse and press start, and Autopark will begin to maneuver the vehicle into the parking space by controlling the vehicle speed, gear changes and steering angle.

The driver can override any of Autopilot’s features at any time by steering, applying the brakes, or using the cruise control stalk (Model S and Model X) or gear selector stalk (Model 3) to deactivate.

To use Summon, a driver must open the Tesla app, press Summon, and then press the forward or reverse buttons. Model S and Model X owners can use Summon with their key fob by holding the center of the key fob for three seconds until the car’s hazard lights come on, and then pressing either the frunk or trunk button on the key fob to Summon forwards and backwards respectively.

Hardware + Software
Autopilot’s robust sensor and camera suite provides drivers with an awareness of their surroundings that a driver alone would not otherwise have. Cars built between September 2014 and October 2016 include one camera, a less-powerful radar, and ultrasonic sensors. All Tesla vehicles built since October 2016 include eight external cameras that feed Tesla-developed neural net, 12 ultrasonic sensors for detecting nearby obstacles, a forward-facing radar that senses through fog, dust, rain, snow, and under cars, and a powerful onboard computer that process these inputs in a matter of milliseconds.

Because every Tesla is connected, Tesla cars are able to get better over time with software updates and the introduction of new features through over-the-air updates. This is even more true with Autopilot as Tesla continuously works to make the system even more capable and keep our customers at the forefront of technology. Tesla’s FSD computer is currently in production and will enable full-self driving via future over-the-air software updates.

Autopilot is an advanced driver assistance system that is classified as a Level 2 automated system according to SAE J3016, which is endorsed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This means Autopilot also helps with driver supervision. One of Tesla’s main motivations for Autopilot is to help increase road safety, and it’s this philosophy that drives their development, validation, and rollout decisions.

Autopilot is intended for use only with a fully attentive driver who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any time. While Autopilot is designed to become more capable over time, in its current form, it is not a self-driving system, it does not turn a Tesla into an autonomous vehicle, and it does not allow the driver to abdicate responsibility. When used properly, Autopilot reduces a driver’s overall workload, and the redundancy of eight external cameras, radar and 12 ultrasonic sensors provides an additional layer of safety that two eyes alone would not have.

Active safety features come standard on all Tesla vehicles made after September 2014 for an added layer of safety beyond the physical structure of each car, and are made possible by our Autopilot hardware and software system, even for customers who have not purchased Autopilot.

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