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Tesla Autopilot is an advanced semi self-driving system that can take some of the work out of driving.

Tesla Autopilot uses a total of 24 sensors and cameras located around the car and an advanced artificial intelligence system. The system processes data from these sensors to steer, accelerate, and decelerate the vehicle automatically.

In this article, we’ll go over some of the basic features of Tesla Autopilot and explain the systems behind them. We’ll also overview the car’s capabilities—including what it can (and can’t) do in its current iteration.

We sourced the information for this article from trusted automotive news sources and Tesla itself. We also referenced artificial intelligence resources to break down the inner workings of Tesla Autopilot computer systems.

Table of Contents

What is Tesla Autopilot?

Autopilot is an automatic driving feature installed in newer Tesla vehicles. Under certain conditions, it can actually drive the car without the same level of driver input required in traditional vehicles.

Tesla’s Autopilot is one of the most advanced self-driving systems in the world, at least when it comes to common production vehicles. It’s about the closest thing consumers can get to a self-driving car in 2021, minus some experimental systems in limited production.

Are Tesla Vehicles Truly Self-Driving?

Although some Tesla vehicles have, as the company calls it, “Full Self-Driving Capability Features,” Tesla Autopilot does not replace the driver. Due to legal and safety issues, they still require driver input due to varying conditions.

Make no mistake about it—even autopilot-equipped Tesla vehicles still require an alert driver to operate safely and reliably. It’s an advanced system, but it still can’t navigate all road conditions

on its own.

Is Tesla Autopilot in All Tesla Vehicles?

According to Tesla, Autopilot is only available on vehicles manufactured after September of 2014. This is because cars made prior to that don’t have the necessary cameras, sensors, and

computing capabilities required for this highly complex self-driving system.

Full self-driving capabilities are available on all autopilot-equipped vehicles, but they’re not standard equipment. Buyers must purchase an additional package to get the latest automatic lane changing and highway driving features.

How Tesla Autopilot Drives the Car

Autopilot is a complex system of integrated cameras and sensors located around the vehicle. These sensors detect road conditions and obstacles, along with lane lines and nearby vehicles. If you look closely, you’ll notice these sensors located on all sides of the vehicle.  

These sensors feed an enormous amount of real-time data to the vehicle’s central computer system. Here, other factors such as speed and geographic location are combined with the onboard sensor data.

When in Autopilot, the computers instantly interpret all available information and instruct the car to behave accordingly. Since Tesla vehicles are entirely computerized, the system can simultaneously control the speed, steering, and signals of the car using available data to make driving decisions.

What Can Tesla Autopilot Do?

Tesla Autopilot can drive the car for you under certain conditions. For example, vehicles with the optional full self-driving ability can make lane changes and navigate through highway traffic automatically. This is a super high-tech automotive advancement, but it’s not a replacement for drivers quite yet.

Tesla Autopilot can also perform some slow-speed tasks, which can be a great benefit to the driver. The cars can navigate on and off of the highway, park automatically, and ‘summon’ out of a parking space.

How Summon Works

Summon is a feature that, through the key or mobile app, automatically moves your car out of a parking spot. The advanced ‘Smart Summon’ feature is even more impressive, as it can move out of a parking spot and navigate the lot, coming right to your location. Essentially, you’ll never lose your car in a parking lot again.

Tesla Autopilot Cameras and Sensors

Tesla vehicles come with numerous cameras and sensors. There are eight cameras located around the vehicle. Three cameras face forward, two cameras face sideways in the B-pillars, two side-rear cameras are located under the fender badges, and one camera on the rear faces backward.

Sensors are more numerous than cameras on Tesla vehicles. There are 16 sensors located around the vehicle, which (when combined with the eight cameras) give the computers a full 360-degree visual and radar-equipped view around the car. The range of the sensors and cameras varies, but the car has both visual and data inputs to work with.

How Do Tesla Computers Know What the Cameras See?

Many people wonder how computers are able to tell the difference between a person, a cone, a shadow, and another car. Much of the inner workings of Tesla Autopilot aren’t available to the public, but we know the basics of what’s going on behind the scenes.

Artificial intelligence is a major component of the Tesla Autopilot system. AI-powered software ‘learns’ from collecting data and eventually figures out how to (almost) always pick out various items from the surroundings.

But it isn’t just any artificial intelligence. Tesla uses deep neural networks for its self-driving systems, which are an advanced form of deep learning artificial intelligence.

These systems are inspired by the way the human brain works and allows machines to actually ‘learn’ to identify things and act on them independently. The more it learns, the better it gets—which is why every mile driven with Tesla Autopilot improves the system.

The human brain is still far more powerful than Tesla’s Autopilot system, despite sharing some basic structural principles. That said, the system is remarkably accurate and has millions of miles under its belt.

Is Tesla Autopilot Safe?

Tesla Autopilot has proven to be remarkably safe, though some incidents have occurred. Tesla CEO Elon Musk famously touted that his Autopilot systems had proven to be “10 times safer” than normal human driving.

And while Autopilot is a proven and generally safe system, there are a few important details to consider before labeling it truly safe. Machines have always (and always will) have problems, and computers have errors. Also, drivers mustn’t become complacent while using Autopilot, as their input is still required for safety.

That said, the incident rates with Autopilot are remarkably low. Autopilot has an incident rate of one accident per 2.05 million miles on average, whereas unassisted human drivers have an accident rate of one every 978,000 miles.

When interpreting this data, remember that it’s taken from a pool of different drivers with different driving habits, some safer than others. But as a whole, most experts consider Tesla Autopilot to be a safe and well-designed addition to their vehicles. And as technology improves, we can expect accident rates to drop even further.

How to Use Tesla Autopilot

Using Tesla Autopilot is easy, and many people compare it to using cruise control on a conventional vehicle. First, make sure you have Autopilot capabilities in your Tesla, and ensure that the software is up to date. Next, we’ll cover the steps to enabling and using Autopilot on the road.

Ensure that all warnings are attended to before using Autopilot. Avoid using it on days when snow or dirty water spray can obscure the sensors, as the system won’t work in less-than-ideal conditions.

Types of Tesla Autopilot

There are two primary systems at work when you engage Tesla Autopilot. These are Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (which uses sensors to regulate speed) and Automatic steering. Automatic steering keeps the car in the lane and (on models with full self-driving capabilities) changes lanes.

How to Engage Tesla Autopilot

Engaging Tesla Autopilot is easy. Simply engage the system on the control screen when you’re on the highway, and the car will take it from there. Autopilot in full self-driving mode can also slow you down for traffic lights.

What Features Come with Standard Autopilot?

The entry-level version of Tesla Autopilot comes with Traffic-Aware Cruise Control and Autosteer. Autosteer can change lanes in highway traffic, and Traffic-Aware Cruise Control uses radar to monitor the speed of the cars in front of you and adapts your speed to match. It keeps you at a safe distance from the car in front of you.

What Driver Input is Required for Autopilot?

As mentioned previously, Tesla Autopilot required drivers to pay attention and be at the controls while it’s being used. This is for the safety of the driver and regulatory pressure, and it’ll likely stay this way for quite some time.

Currently, the system doesn’t require you to have your feet on the pedals when engages. However, you should keep them in the footwell close to the pedals in case you need to intervene.

Your hands must be on the steering wheel for the system to work. You can keep them there lightly, but it won’t operate unless you do. You can take over at any time using the wheel or the brakes, and the system will default to your control.

What to Do if Autopilot Suddenly Disengages

If Tesla Autopilot suddenly disengages, it’s probably because there’s an issue with the sensors or computers. Often, it’s because sensors are dirty, obscured, or cease to function properly.

If this occurs, the car will let you know using a series of visual and audio warnings. When Autopilot disengages, simply take control of the car and drive normally.

Will Tesla Autopilot Get Better?

Yes! Tesla is constantly improving its autopilot system. The great part about Autopilot is that the sensors and cameras (hardware) is already so advanced that the majority of the work happens on the software side.

Tesla vehicles are connected to the internet, which means major updates get fed directly to your car. This includes bug fixes, safety upgrades, and even additional features.

How Tesla Autopilot Works

About The Author

Charles Redding

Charles Redding

I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.

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