The Model 3’s “total autonomous driving” required a lot of human intervention to protect us and everyone else on the road. Sometimes that meant hitting the brake to turn off the software so it wouldn’t try to circle a car in front of us. Other times, we quickly gave the wheel a jerk to avoid a collision. (Tesla tells drivers to pay constant attention to the road and be prepared to act immediately.)
He hoped the car didn’t make any more stupid mistakes. After what seemed like an eternity, the children finished crossing. I exhaled.
We were clear to take our turn. The car seemed too hesitant at first, but then I noticed a cyclist coming from our left. We expect.
Once the bicyclist crossed the intersection, the car stopped and made a smooth turn.
“Total Autonomous Driving” is a $ 10,000 driver assistance feature offered by Tesla. While all new Teslas are capable of using “full autonomous driving” software, buyers must opt for the expensive addition if they want to access the feature. The software is still in beta and is currently available only to a select group of Tesla owners, although CEO Elon Musk has stated that a wider rollout is imminent. Musk promises that “total autonomous driving” will be fully capable of getting a car to its destination in the near future.
But it doesn’t do that. Far from there.
Tesla owners have described the technology as impressive but also flawed. One moment he’s driving perfectly, the next moment he almost collides with something.
We asked Jason to meet us on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. It is an urban artery that channels thousands of cars, trucks, bicyclists and pedestrians into Manhattan. Even for experienced human drivers, it can be challenging.
Brooklyn offered us the opportunity to see how close Tesla’s autonomous driving software was to replacing human drivers. It’s the kind of place humans drive because they have to, not the kind of place selected by a corporate headquarters. It’s where self-driving cars can have the biggest impact.
At one point we were navigating the right lane of Flatbush. A construction site loomed ahead. The car sped toward a row of chain-link fences.
But this time he was sitting in the back seat. Instinctively I raised my right arm like the Heisman Trophy, as if to protect myself in a collision.
That was a time when you wanted “full autonomous driving” to change lanes quickly. In other cases, he wanted her to relax in her aggressive turns.
“Total autonomous driving” sometimes makes sharp turns. The wheel begins to turn, but then backs up, before turning again in the intended direction. Staggered turns generally don’t seem like a bother on wide suburban curves, but in a dense city built largely before cars, it’s awkward.
There’s also the braking, which can seem random. At one point, a car came up to the rear and finished off us after braking that surprised me. Honking was common. I never felt like I knew what I would do after “total autonomous driving”. Asking for “total autonomous driving” to navigate Brooklyn felt like asking a student driver to take a road test they weren’t ready for yet.
What “full autonomous driving” could do well was impressive, but the experience was ultimately disconcerting. I can’t imagine using “total autonomous driving” regularly in a city. I found he was reluctant to look down at the dash of the Model 3, for example, to check our speed, because he didn’t want to take his eyes off the road.
Tesla owners routinely tell me how Autopilot, the predecessor to highway-centric “total autonomous driving,” makes their trips less stressful. They arrive at destinations feeling less fatigued. Some have told me that they are more likely to take long road trips because of the autopilot.
But “total autonomous driving” felt like the opposite. I felt like I needed to be constantly on guard to prevent the car from doing something wrong.
Ultimately, seeing “total autonomous driving” in Brooklyn reminded me of the importance of the finer points of driving, which is difficult for an AI-powered car to master. Things like going slightly into the intersection on a narrow road to make a left turn so that traffic behind you has room to move. “Total autonomous driving” just stayed in place as the frustrated drivers behind us honked their horns.
For now, “Total Autonomous Driving” seems more like a party trick to show off to friends than a must-have feature.