Teslas are known for their advanced driver-assist technology. But can a Tesla really drive and park itself?
Tesla vehicles can park themselves, summon and navigate to their owner in a parking lot, and engage in limited self-driving. Tesla Autopilot is available with level 2 self-driving capabilities, and the tech is closer to achieving true level 3 self-driving.
In this article, we'll overview Tesla's current self-driving and self-parking capabilities and dispel some myths and misconceptions about this incredible technology. We'll also go over the different levels of self-driving and the functionality you can expect with each.
We found the information used in this article from multiple sources, including trusted automotive news sites, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and Tesla itself.
Tesla Self-Parking Technology
Self-parking technology is nothing new, though it's never been as advanced and accurate as it is on new Teslas. The 2006 Lexus LS460 was the first commercially available self-parking car on the market, and it featured a rudimentary parallel parking assist that worked well.
Tesla's self-parking technology is much more advanced. Not only can Tesla cars park themselves, but they can be remotely summoned out of their parking spots and drive themselves over to the owner's location. This represents a massive technological shift and a first in the industry.
Tesla Self-Driving Technology
But what about self-driving technology? As we mentioned earlier, Tesla vehicles can technically drive themselves. The cars can be remotely summoned and operate completely independently for short distances, as this appears to be allowed by the law at the moment. But how deep does Tesla's self-driving technology really go?
As it turns out, many new Tesla vehicles have full self-driving capabilities, and virtually all newer Tesla vehicles have the sensors required for this system to work. Full self-driving is supposedly supported by just a handful of cameras and sensors located on the front, back, and sides of the vehicle.
Is Tesla Self-Driving Safe?
There's been a few sensational stories in the news lately about self-driving Teslas. Millions have seen the couple asleep at the wheel while their Tesla drives itself, and many remember the deadly Arizona crash of another self-driving car from a couple of years ago. But these stories don't tell the whole truth—far from it. Tesla Autopilot and self-driving have proven to be remarkably safe thus far.
Tesla's self-driving features are many times safer than the average driver. In 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that Tesla cars running with Autopilot had just one accident for every 3,000,000 miles driven. This is significantly less than the average national rate of one accident per 498,000 miles.
Interestingly, Tesla cars also do well without Autopilot engaged. According to Tesla, vehicles without Autopilot engaged had one accident per 1,790,000 miles—still many times safer than the average car. This is likely due to Tesla's numerous automatic safety systems that help prevent or mitigate collisions.
What is True Self-Driving?
Full self-driving is available on certain Tesla packages, and it works quite well considering its current stage of development. However, it's debatable whether or not Tesla's technology is truly self-driving. There are still many conditions where the system won't operate, and drivers are required to be present and engaged throughout the entire drive.
Levels of Vehicle Autonomy
Before we decide if Tesla cars are truly self-driving, it's important to cover the different levels of vehicle autonomy and what they mean. These levels define the amount of human interaction required. Note that not everyone agrees on the specifics, but this list is generally representative.
Level 0 Autonomy
Level 0 autonomy is absolutely manually controlled. A base model Chevrolet sedan from the 1970s is probably the best example of this type of vehicle—a three-speed manual transmission, manual steering, manual brakes, crank windows, and so on.
However, many people don't consider automatic transmissions or power windows to be a determining factor. This is simply a car that requires full driver control. Some new (or newer) cars are Level 0, such as most base-model pickup trucks.
Level 1 Autonomy
Level 1 autonomy includes some level of basic driver assistance, such as cruise control. Most vehicles on the road today can be considered Level 1, especially new cars equipped with adaptive (radar-controlled) cruise control or an automatic pre-collision braking system. Automatic systems can take control of a small aspect like acceleration, while humans have the ultimate say and control.
Level 2 Autonomy
Level 2 autonomous driving is more advanced and thus less common. These vehicles include highly advanced computerized systems that perform complex actions, such as handling the throttle, brakes, and steering. Tesla Autopilot is considered to be level 2, as it can pilot the car in good conditions with constant driver attention.
Level 3 Autonomy
Level 3 is the first level that is considered to be fully autonomous or truly self-driving. This is where the confusion with Tesla's full self-driving mode comes in. Tesla cars have a lot of features that would appear to qualify them for level 3—but they haven't had enough road time and mileage to prove it.
Level 3 self-driving can drive the car thanks to environmental scanning technology that can adapt to varying road and traffic conditions reliably. It doesn't differ much from Level 2, except in complex maneuvers and demonstrable reliability.
Level 4 Autonomy
Level 4 autonomy is somewhat of an engineering unicorn at the moment. So far, it hasn't been demonstrated in a commercially viable way yet. Level 4 autonomy is true, full, complete self-driving that can adapt to varying conditions reliably. Level 4 self-driving will probably be achieved sometime in the next decade or two.
These vehicles can still be driven by a human, and the driver still has an ultimate say and the ability to override the automation at will. Level 4 self-driving cars are likely a ways away, though some promising advancements have been made at companies around the world.
Level 5 Autonomy
Level 5 autonomy is a dream for many self-driving car engineers, but it's a long way away and may not replace level 4 cars in the wider market. Level 5 self-driving cars are totally autonomous and don't include any way for the owner to actually drive the car: no steering wheel, no brakes, no control.
Level 5 self-driving cars cannot be legally operated on the road in most places, as a human still needs to bear responsibility and have a chance to take control if the system fails. Despite the claims of some media outlets, we won't see these vehicles replacing normal cars any time soon.
Do Teslas Have Level 3 Self-Driving Capabilities?
Not exactly—although new Teslas have many Level 3 features, they're not quite there yet. That said, Tesla engineers will probably achieve true level 3 self-driving in the near future. Many of the technological hurdles have already been solved, and the systems need time to prove themselves and finish development.
Obstacles such as road time and security can't be solved in a pinch, and these systems (although technically already installed in Teslas) must prove themselves over time and millions of road miles in the real world. Situations that humans can account for (such as low visibility, deer eyes in the bushes, and road work) need to be within the car's ability to recognize reliably.
Are Teslas Truly Self-Driving?
At the moment, no—Tesla has only reliably achieved level 2 self-driving. That said, new Teslas sold today have a high likelihood of inheriting level 3 capabilities sometime in the future, as Tesla had the foresight to install a multitude of sensors that can theoretically be used to support true self-driving.
Can Tesla Autopilot Override Drivers?
Many people, especially those skeptical of self-driving cars, worry that Tesla's autopilot system could override them and take control of the vehicle. Thankfully, this isn't the case—the driver is still in ultimate control in all Tesla vehicles.
There are several ways to automatically and instantly override Tesla's self-driving features. Similar to standard cruise control, simply touching the brakes will disable automatic driving. Additionally, you can move the steering wheel and achieve the same effect.
Can You Hack Autopilot for Full Self-Driving?
Tesla has systems in place to ensure drivers stay attentive when Autopilot or self-driving mode is engaged. This is both a requirement and a necessary safety precaution and should never be tampered with. However, some drivers found ways around it.
It was demonstrated that, by placing an apple on the wheel, a Tesla could be 'tricked' into driving itself without driver attentiveness. Some companies produce aftermarket devices to achieve the same effect.
A recent accident in Texas was caused by a driver who tricked Autopilot and left the driver's seat. Tesla is working on preventing this from happening, but it's still possible in many vehicles. When a driver is engaged, Autopilot is very safe. But if tampered with, it may disengage or cause other problems that the driver won't be able to fix without being in control.
About THE AUTHOR
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.Read More About Charles Redding