Earlier this week, I had an experience that was both intimidating and thrilling. But mostly thrilling.
During my LA rush hour commute, I drove our company's Tesla Model S in Autopilot for the first time. (Yes, we’re hiring.)
After a quick Autopilot training session with an experienced colleague, I was on my own and I was sweating.
In truth, I full-on failed the first time I tried to do it. I just didn’t have the touch. I couldn’t figure out exactly where to put my hands or how to grip the wheel. My grip was either too strong or not strong enough and before I knew it, I was aggravating Blue our bright blue Model S. I heard an audible correction and then a few minutes later the dreaded rebuke, “autosteer unavailable for the rest of this drive.”
Yep! My touch was so bad that I literally had to exit the freeway, come to a complete stop and put Blue back into PARK so that I could re-engage Autopilot. I (ironically) pulled into a gas station parking lot where I took a few deep breaths and gave myself a much-needed pep talk. Then, I tried again.
Lucky for me, my second try was much more successful. The truth was that while Blue was in Autopilot I was even more attentive to my drive than usual. I had to touch the wheel gently to be able to use Autosteer, but inside I was white-knuckling it. I wasn’t able to rely on my muscle memory as I drove that 30 miles down the US-101 in stop-and-go rush hour traffic. Instead, I had to rely on the car. I had to trust the car’s computer and quiet my own reflexes. At first, it was an odd sensation to relinquish some control while careening at 70 MPH in a big hunk of metal but, ultimately, it was a truly freeing one.
With my heightened focus, I realized that Blue drove differently and seemed to have more balanced reactions in stop-and-go traffic than I would have had. In fact, I had to continually fight the urge to grab the steering wheel and slam on the brakes because Blue drove more calmly and braked more subtly than was my impulse. There was not a hint of whiplash with Blue driving me through the bumper to bumper hellscape that is LA rush hour...none. Even when somebody cut me off and Blue had to slam on the brakes, it did so gracefully and we were back to even, steady-state driving in no time. (Newsflash: Tesla Autopilot doesn’t experience road rage or get shaken up.)
About half-way home, after Blue had successfully navigated around the inevitable backups near freeway interchanges, I became more comfortable and decided to let the car change lanes for me. I put the blinker on and after checking its own blind spot, Blue moved over one lane. Wait...what? It actually checked its own blind spot? Just, wow.
Later, as I neared my freeway exit and reflected on my “first time” using Autopilot, I realized how freeing it had been to give my trigger foot some rest. I had driven in rush hour traffic for a whole hour and hadn’t slammed my foot on the brake at all-- not even once. Definitely a first.
As Blue moved into the far right lane so I could make my exit, I experienced a sense of elation and relief. I recognized that feeling. It was the same feeling I get after diving off the high dive or riding Space Mountain at Disneyland. It was elation and relief followed by a tinge of disappointment that it was time to go back to the “real world.” And, in this case, the “real world” was the full thrash of city driving.
So, will I do it again? Will I keep using Autopilot?
Absolutely. The experience is transformative.
After just one round-trip test drive, I can envision how Autopilot could make my commute exponentially more pleasurable. I can also see that in many situations the car might be a better driver than me. After all, it has computer vision from eight cameras and an internal mapping system; it also displays great etiquette in merging traffic and has zero chance of getting distracted by text messages or crying children!
When it comes to Autopilot, I can see how once you start, you can’t stop.