Maybe it’s a product of Elon Musk’s good-natured Bond villain mien, but it’s often tempting to believe that his companies are more revolutionary than even he intends them to be. So you, like me, may have gotten especially excited when you first heard that Tesla was adding an “autopilot” feature to its Model S series cars. But now that more details are circulating—and the first road test reviews are coming in—it’s become clearer that this innovation isn’t going to do our driving for us, not yet at any rate.
Look for a fuller write up from Slate’s Will Oremus later this week, but here’s what you need to know for now: As one Reddit user noted, your Tesla Model S isn’t going to drive you home drunk anytime soon. While Tesla is introducing some cool new capabilities to its vehicles via their latest software update, which arrived this week, they’re not absolving their customers of responsibility.
In conversation with Bloomberg Business’ Betty Liu, Musk made a similar point, explaining “that it’s important for us to differentiate autonomous driving [from] autopilot.” Autonomous cars, like the adorable prototypes made by Google tooling around Northern California these days, simply shuttle their passengers from one location to the next, needing to know only a destination. By contrast, autopilot still requires that a human remain behind the wheel, and, as Tesla explains, that he or she remain engaged while there.
In essence, the Model S’s autopilot is the next step forward in cruise control technology. Its cameras and other sensors keep an eye on surrounding traffic, allowing the vehicle to autonomously determine the appropriate speed. It also assists lane changing—though only after the driver activates the turn signal—and contributes to side collision avoidance. Collectively, these features mean that the autopilot system is best for highway conditions. While some details, like its assistive parallel parking mode, may make life in cities easier, those who are using it in urban environments won’t experience the full range of its capabilities.
As those who’ve demoed the Model S update already have seen, the car actively works to make sure that the driver doesn’t drift off. When the autopilot system is activated, it occasionally tells you to put your hands back on the wheel “to make sure you’re still there.” And with good reason: While the system can read speed limit signs, it doesn’t know how to recognize traffic lights yet. (Though that capability, which is already showing up in other smart cars, may be around the corner.)
In interviews, Musk claims that truly autonomous cars may be just a few years away. There are, however, still regulatory hurdles to be overcome and technical limitations to be surpassed. I, for my own part, will probably still have to earn my license the old-fashioned way. If Musk is like a Bond villain, I imagine that his message to me would come in the spirit of Goldfinger: “No, Mr. Brogan, I expect you to drive.”