Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot on Busy City Highways
In the Fall of 2018, owners started to get the ability to use the first real-world advancements in Tesla’s autonomous initiatives with Navigate on Autopilot (NOA). Beginning with firmware version 2018.42.x, drivers could allow the car to make decisions on which lane to be in based on the flow of traffic around the vehicle. The car would notify you that it wanted to make the change, and once the driver confirmed the action by using the turn signal stalk the car would move over. The vehicle would even take the GPS identified exit for your destination before handing the controls back over to the driver. Previously, the only “self-driving” feature was Autopilot (AP) where the driver would initiate a lane change by using the turn signal indicator and the car would move over if safe to do so.
NOA also had settings on how aggressive you could allow the car to make a decision on when to change lanes. Four options were available for the driver; Disabled, Mild, Average and MAD MAX. The primary difference between each is how tolerant the car will be of slower traffic in front of it before wanting to make a lane change so it could achieve the current desired speed setting set for NOA.
In April 2019, Tesla released firmware version 2019.8.x which added the additional feature to NOA of allowing the vehicle to change lanes with no confirmation. The driver would be notified on the screen showing which lane the car was going to move into, it would engage the turn signal and make the lane change when safe. The driver had the option to have the car provide additional notifications by a chime, vibrating the steering wheel or both. An additional option allowed the car to use NOA like before by requiring a lane change confirmation by the driver.
The big question is how well does Navigate on Autopilot work? Overall, I believe that it shows how quickly Tesla is advancing toward autonomous driving, but it has a long way to go still, however as of today, it is too conservative. Being someone who commutes 135 miles round trip to work daily through the heart of Atlanta, I have found NOA frustrating. On average, when it does successfully make a lane change based on a decision it has made, it takes about 10 full seconds to complete it. Five of those seconds are just with the turn signal on before it moves at all, and another 5 seconds to perform the lane change. This is too long at highway speed in traffic that often moving at 70-75 mph, if not more. In distance traveled during those 10 seconds is about 2-tenths of a mile. During the initial 5 seconds, the open target lane is often becoming quickly occupied due to faster traffic and can create a potentially dangerous situation. Sometimes it will not make the lane change, and others it will and create an annoyance to the driver who is now behind you. In my opinion, until Tesla allows the car to make these lane changes in 5 seconds or less TOTAL, this feature is one I will not use again in congested areas. In testing my own driving habits with how quickly I make lane changes on densely populated highways when in control, it was 4-5 seconds total.
I do believe that Tesla will continue to make NOA and other Full Self Driving (FSD) features better over time. During the Tesla Autonomy Day on April 22, 2019, CEO Elon Musk acknowledged that eventually NOA/AP will allow a more aggressive mode for lane changes, but with that, there will be a “slight chance of a fender bender.” I for one will welcome this change, as I feel as long as the driver continues to be in command of the vehicle by remaining alert to the actions being taken, this is a minor risk for improved usage of the feature in busy highway environments.
Where I believe NOA does work well today is when traveling long distances away from city population centers. On the open road, it is amazing. Allows for a very relaxing experience and quite enjoyable.
During the Tesla Autonomy Day, Musk and several of his Executive Engineers showed how NOA and AP are providing data back to Tesla to help them educate the software of the vehicles to one day drive itself with no human interaction, or even a driver in the car, at all. This is especially useful when a driver takes over from NOA/AP due to some event taking place and is reported back to Tesla so they can review specific situations and make improvements on how the cars should handle that type of event in the future. Tesla’s goal, according to Musk, is for driverless autonomy being available in all Tesla’s with the new Full Self Driving computer, by the end of 2020, but regulator approval may take longer.
In my personal experience driving a Tesla Model 3 daily has changed my commuting experience across the highway system of Atlanta. However, I am unsure how realistic driverless autonomy will be in the next 18 months, but I for one am extremely interested to see and experience the changes that will continue to roll out through the over the air WiFi updates. In May 2019, firmware 2019.12.1.x was released and some improvements to how the vehicles react to events and debris on the road have improved dramatically. I have seen friends dash cam videos of the car self-avoiding debris on the road or kicked up from the road. Others have posted videos where the car avoids another car that dramatically stops or moves in front of them. Personally, I had an experience where I was in AP at about 75MPH and another vehicle was to my right. Out of nowhere, a motorcycle decided he was going to split us. Before I even saw or heard him coming the car did and moved a few feet to the left to ensure no contact would be made. It surprised me but was an incredible safety experience you can only get from a Tesla, today.
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