2016 Tesla Model X: Autopilot Day and Night
by Travis Langness, Automotive Editor on June 24, 2016
A few editors have tested the Autopilot feature in our long-term 2016 Tesla Model X and have generally spoken its praises. Office musings of the Model X's "best adaptive cruise system currently available" and the potential of a hands-free commute is pretty enticing. Clearly, I wanted to test it out for myself. So, with four passengers on a short trip to and from Dodger Stadium, I set the Model X loose.
The trip to the stadium was in daylight among heavy traffic. I engaged the adaptive cruise control (ACC) and eventually the Autopilot feature (tap the cruise control stack four times quickly and you get Autopilot plus the cute Mario-Kart-rainbow-road display/easter egg).
The ACC worked well, keeping the Tesla centered in the lane and impressing my passengers. One of its foibles, though, was a tendency to stop a bit late when traffic came to a halt. The Tesla would hit the brakes hard when it realized it had been following too close, thrusting passengers forward in their seats.
Increasing the ACC's following distance was an easy fix. I moved it from a one-car distance to a three-car following distance and braking became much more gradual. Unfortunately, lots of LA drivers take advantage of that space and cut you off. It's hard to find a good middle ground, but all things considered, the system worked really well. I'd use it for that kind of thick, daylight traffic every day.
On the way home from the baseball game, though, things were much, much worse.
At night, the Autopilot system becomes confused, wayward and pretty much useless. It drifts the Tesla into other lanes (especially around curves) and doesn't spot pedestrians or curbs well. I felt I had to intervene several times to avoid bodily injury or property damage. Then I decided to completely turn the system off so the car wouldn't cut off another driver or creep over into another lane.
ACC and Autopilot worked much better with more cars around and I imagine that's because of the light they cast on the road and the reference frames they provide. But with less traffic, the Model X seemed to be driving a bit blind, unable to see what was ahead and clearly unable to react to what it couldn't see.
Autopilot is not a "take your hands off the wheel and let the car drive you home" system, especially in the dark. It can do an acceptable job of getting you from on-ramp to off-ramp on roads with good markings, during daylight hours. But that's a lot of conditionals. Based on my experience, I'm leery about relying on this system on the freeway at night.
Is it impressive? Absolutely. Is it finished tech? Nope.
Travis Langness, Automotive Editor @ 4,350 miles