But Alan has had a different experience and disagrees with Consumer Reports‘ complaint: “Not reacting to brake lights and turn signals might be the right thing to do. Humans often don’t use a signal, or they leave it on and forget about it, which would be extremely confusing and contribute to what Tesla owners know as ‘phantom braking.’ My experience is that it quickly predicts somebody about to change into my lane without indicating, even slowing down when they’re still physically in the other lane.”
As for me? Brake lights appear fractionally before a car begins to physically slow, so that’s a critical early alert. And if, as Tesla told CR, NoAP is recognizing brake lights (and turn signals), then I’d like to read a long, detailed study about its effectiveness. A turn signal is more of an appreciated politeness. But frankly, the best tip-off to lane-change intentions is the other driver’s eye and head motions, reflected in their side mirrors.
Unlike single-lane driving with adaptive cruise control and lane centering (Cadillac‘s Super Cruise being Autopilot’s only serious rival at these), the game of lane-change checkers doesn’t play out so obviously in front of you. It’s happening in your small side mirrors, or worse, in your blind spots.
But there’s methodology and belief, and then there’s the actual experience. On his transcontinental jaunt from Chicago to L.A., Alan averaged 730 miles per day at 70 mph, each day, stopping three to four times to supercharge. Although the traffic was generally light, dodging potholes (which NoAP can’t predict) had him on continuous alert.
Driving on lightly trafficked interstates through America’s heartland might result in NoAP working flawlessly, but the Road Warrioresque L.A. freeways are another matter. We wanted to get a firsthand sense of who’s right—Alan or Consumer Reports. Heck, depending on how the software and settings were programmed, both could be right.
So we borrowed a Model 3 from an MT employee and headed out onto the 405 freeway in some early-afternoon Friday mayhem. Our car was using 2.5 hardware and 2019.12.1.2 firmware; the more recent 2019.20.1 adds automatic zooming of the screen’s visualization of your blind spots, conditional speed limits depending on time and weather, and a push notification at 20 percent of battery state of charge when using Dog mode. (Editor’s note: While pitched as being in “beta” form and frequently being updated via over-the-air upgrades, Navigate on Autopilot is nonetheless available to the general public of Tesla owners, which makes evaluating it as a fully-formed product necessary. )
At first the car was reluctant to change lanes at all. Alan set the Speed Based Lane Changes aggressiveness at average (there’s three profiles, from Mild to Mad Max). “The other lanes just aren’t moving much better for it to bother to try,” he said. So we stepped it up to Mad Max.
Then things started happening. The screen displays a pending lane change, Alan has his hands on the wheel (the system requires this before proceeding), the turn signal begins blinking automatically without Alan’s prompting, and the car starts making hesitant weaves toward the intended lane’s markers. I’m watching the drama through the side mirror.
After a few aborted attempts, the Tesla finally goes for it, and we slot into the next lane, mission completed. A few minutes later it does the maneuver again. Then again. Same behavior each time. None seemed like we were cutting anybody off, but the series of wobbly sniffs at the next lane has an indecision about it. If it’s not sure, why should I be?
“Using the system is like monitoring a kid behind the wheel for the very first time,” CR‘s Fisher said. “As any parent knows, it’s far more convenient and less stressful to simply drive yourself.” Actually, in our case, this waffling over the lane change—yes, no, yes, no, yes—seems more like a stiff-necked, elderly driver.
Personally, my confidence would be reassured if the car’s screen display of lane markings and icons of nearby cars depicted a larger-scale scene. Tesla’s already the best at communicating what’s in the car’s immediately vicinity—directly ahead, to the side, directly behind. But a lane change involves players moving around in a lot more real estate than that.
Another crack in my confidence began to spread as we crept along at the merger with California State Route 90. To the right, a large truck loomed, slightly ahead and edging ever closer to us. And closer. And closer. Finally, Alan tapped the brake and turned away before we collided. Why isn’t a truck the size of an elephant noticed by the side camera and proximity sensors?
To those who frequent Reddit and Tesla owner forums, this isn’t the first time such an incident has been mentioned. And to be sure, we’ve tested non-Tesla cars with ACC and LC—having to take evasive action to avoid collisions with close-merging cars that those cars’ forward-facing camera didn’t see. But in this case, we were a bit surprised that the Tesla’s additional cameras and proximity sensors missed the elephant in the next lane.
Tesla notes that the optional, non-default setting has already successfully driven tens of millions of miles since its release, and that NoAP executes more than 100,000 safe lane changes every day on America’s highways.
In fact, the car’s on-screen prompt—when changing from user-activated lane changes to automated lane changes—has a pretty stern warning: “You may choose to disable the turn signal confirmation for automatically-initiated lane changes, but you must be aware that lane changes may happen quickly and at any time. Disabling the turn signal confirmation does NOT alleviate the driver of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and carefully monitor the vehicle’s surroundings. “
I mention to Alan the CR claim that, in their hands, NoAP executed illegal lane changes. He confirms it has happened to him, as well. “With HOV lane usage turned off, it still occasionally tries to pass in the carpool lane anyway when it fails to recognize it.”
Although our test drive was brief, Alan says that what we encountered was pretty typical of his experience in the last few months, including occasional incidents such as that truck crowding in on us. Tesla requested the VIN of our private owner’s Model 3 so they could evaluate the incident and provide comment, but our owner preferred not to share that information. Not knowing all the details, Tesla declined to comment on the incident.
However, the NoAP system’s frequent software updates make predicting its behavior a moving target—such as its now more aggressive braking before lane changes, earlier migration into the correct lane for an offramp, and more frequent occurrences of phantom braking.
So is Consumer Reports right, and is Alan being too forgiving of this rather erratic software programming?
It depends on your tolerance for a new type of driving. Right now, all these systems require you to be a vigilant monitor. Even Cadillac’s ACC and LC Super Cruise, which I’m a big fan of, needs my periodic intervention. Does that mean it’s dangerous? No. But they ask us to understand that what we classically think of as “driving” is transforming into a driver-and-semi-automated collaboration. Unfortunately, some Tesla buyers believe Autopilot means they can drive hands-free. That is an incorrect assumption.
So perhaps the questions we’re asking should be reframed: Is Tesla’s Navigate on Autopilot worth collaborating with? Questions like this aren’t going away; as with a lot of automotive technology, Tesla is just among the first to force us into some unfamiliar new conversations. For instance, Nissan recently announced Pro Pilot 2 in Japan, which is very similar to NoAP except, like Super Cruise, it uses eye tracking to ensure a driver is monitoring the road, and it requires a lane-change confirmation button to be pressed (and like Tesla, it doesn’t include lidar in its sensor suite).
As for Alan, well, he approves of using NoAP, which he says is regularly adjusting with over-the-air updates. But how about you? If you’re a Tesla driver using NoAP, briefly tell me about your experience. How many miles and where do you use it? What firmware is it running? What lane-change and Cruise Follow settings do you use? Any incidents? Do you like it? Don’t? Please be dead honest, as it’s a serious conversation we all need to share. Here’s my email: [email protected]