The world of “self-driving” is rife with all kinds of marketing jargon that contributes to plenty of confusion both for customers and the media. If you believe everything that Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweets, we’re all on the verge of being able to simply set our cars for a destination and let them drive us there without having to interfere, right? While Musk is a polarizing figure — and despite the technology’s confusing and potentially even misleading name — his AutoPilot system is simply a name for Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system. It is not, in fact, a fully self-driving system.
It’s also different and separate from Tesla’s more advanced Full Self Driving technology package, which itself has a misleading name. Here’s what you need to know in order to understand AutoPilot and what it can and cannot do.
What is ADAS and what does it have to do with AutoPilot?
ADAS stands for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. It’s an automotive industry term that companies use as a catch-all for the technology that helps make driving both safer and more comfortable. ADAS can encompass everything from blind-spot warning and lane departure warning to more advanced systems like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance. Some ADAS systems are very advanced, allowing the driver to remove their feet and hands off the controls while the car is underway (and while ADAS is engaged) and adapt to the speed of traffic around the vehicle without crashing. Others are not nearly as advanced. It really depends on the type of technology included in a vehicle and how successfully it is implemented.
AutoPilot is Tesla’s marketing term for an ADAS system that includes an adaptive cruise system that, when active, modulates speed and distance based on the traffic, road conditions and speed limits on specific, mapped roads. It also includes a lane-centering steering assist system that Tesla calls “Autosteer,” which helps your vehicle remain in its lane as the road curves and undulates. Other brands offer these types of features.
Most ADAS systems have specific physical parameters that have to be met before the system can be turned on. For example, like other adaptive cruise control and lane-centering steering systems, the sensors around the vehicle must have at least one or two clear lane markings on either side of the car in order to keep the vehicle centered in the lane. Adaptive cruise uses cameras around the vehicle (though older models also featured radar) to maintain a set speed and distance from vehicles ahead and around it.
What is “Self-Driving” and Why Isn’t AutoPilot a Fully-Autonomous Driving System?
This brings us to the topic of “self-driving,” and “autonomous vehicles.” These terms are often thrown around by Musk and his fans, especially when it comes to claims that Tesla vehicles can drive themselves using AutoPilot. The reality is that there are currently no legal, full-self-driving vehicles on the road today, no matter what Elon Musk or his marketing department may say.
That’s because autonomous driving is highly regulated and clearly defined by various governing bodies both here in the United States and around the world. To understand why Tesla’s AutoPilot is not a self-driving system, you have to first understand how these regulating bodies define self- or autonomous driving.
There are two main governing bodies that help define this stuff: the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (also known as NHTSA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (also known as SAE). According to these two governing bodies, there are six levels of autonomy ranging from Level 0 to Level 5. As you move up each level, you essentially remove the need for human interaction from the driving equation. As you move up the scale towards Level 5, you can increasingly withdraw your attention as well as your physical body from the driver’s seat. Here’s how the levels break down:
Level 0: Also known as driving on your own without any assistance, whatsoever. You accelerate, you steer, you brake. It’s just you, your car, and the laws of physics.
Level 1: At Level 1 you get some automation. This means your car is capable of managing simple inputs, one at a time. These include things like basic cruise control or lane-departure warning. The first consumer cars to feature cruise control (which ironically enough was called Auto-pilot), came from Chrysler in 1968.
Level 2: At this level, you can use two or more automated systems to drive, at the same time. For example, that means your cruise control is now pretty smart. You still have to set the speed, but once it’s engaged, the car can automatically slow down if there’s a car in front, or speed up when the coast is clear. It can also pair with lane-keeping assist (makes sure you don’t veer out of your lane) and the more advanced lane-centering steering assist (does much of the steering for you but you need to keep a hand on the wheel). Although AutoPilot is a highly advanced adaptive cruise control, even Tesla has admitted that it’s Level 2 system. AutoPilot has come under a lot of fire from NHTSA, the FTC, and politicians because of the deadly crashes resulting from Musk’s repeated, misleading claims that AutoPilot is a fully-autonomous system. GM’s Super Cruise and Ford’s BlueCruise are Level 2 systems.
Level 3: This is what’s known as conditional automation meaning that if specific conditions are met (like proper lane markings, road signs, and weather conditions, on specific stretches of highway), then the car can do some limited self-driving without any human input – but with the requirement that a human can take over at any time if the system fails to detect the required inputs. The new 2023 Mercedes-Benz S-Class will offer an optional package called DrivePilot, which is a real, legal, conditional Level 3 system.
Level 4 and Level 5: These two levels are varying degrees of autonomous driving – Level 4 still offers a steering wheel or mechanism for a human to take over, while Level 5 deletes the steering wheel controls completely. These two phases are still very far off. There are no Level 4 or Level 5 autonomous vehicles on public roads today.
Only at Level 5 autonomy can you safely hop into the back seat of your car and take a nap or eat a pizza.
There are currently two levels of AutoPilot that Tesla offers: “Basic AutoPilot” and “Full Self-Driving.”
Basic AutoPilot comes on all Teslas and includes ADAS systems like adaptive cruise, lane centering and lane-keeping assistance and emergency braking.
Customers can decide to “upgrade” by paying as much as $12,000, to “Full Self-Driving,” or FSD. At the FSD level, customers get access to systems that can help them “summon,” their Tesla from a parking spot (though there have been many incidences of crashes, like this Tesla that drove itself into a $3 million private jet while using the system), stop sign control and auto lane change. Tesla rolled out (and then rolled back) an “Assertive” mode for its FSD system, which rolled stop signs, narrowed the following distance and made some questionable left turns. Tesla was required to remove its Assertive mode because of the risky (and illegal) behavior.
Is AutoPilot a Self-Driving System?
Absolutely not. Tesla’s AutoPilot is a Level 2 system that amounts to a suite of advanced driver safety systems that help make driving a bit less taxing. Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” system is also not a self-driving system since it still requires human input. In case it bears repeating: You should never, ever, exit the driver’s seat, take a nap or take your eyes off the road when using either of these systems as they pose a risk to both your own life and those of the drivers around you. While AutoPilot is a tool that can be used to make driving easier, it is not a full self-driving system.