It drives itself

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Over Christmas, I was lucky enough to spend some time with a brand new, fully-loaded Tesla Model S P90D. I picked it up in the middle of San Francisco and drove it uneventfully through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge. As I entered the open highway, a new icon appeared on the car’s minimalist dashboard–a little steering wheel. When I pulled back on the cruise control stick twice, there was a pleasant beep, and then, as if by magic, the vehicle was driving itself. It perfectly turned with the curves of the road, and slowed and sped to maintain a perfect distance from the cars in front of it. It even handled stop-and-go traffic perfectly. I took my hands off the steering wheel and watched. The car was driving itself.

I remember reading the initial reviews of Tesla’s “Autopilot” functionality and thinking that it sounded cool. Even the review videos looked cool. But actually experiencing it–literally feeling the car’s computer make decisions as it approached curves and obstacles–was one of the more profound experiences of my life. For only the second time I can remember–the first time was while using the original iPhone–I muttered under my breath, “I am experiencing the future”.


There are some obvious limitations to Tesla’s Autopilot as it exists today. A couple of times, when the car’s computer lost sight of lane markers, it loudly told me to take over immediately. But at the very least, Autopilot is an intense taste of the future… it is a great demonstration of the state of art in autonomous driving technology, and in so many ways, it reminds me of the first iPhone. It isn’t very hard to extrapolate from today’s Autopilot into a fully self-driving future. And after experiencing it, the future feels a lot closer than I had expected.

If you can, I highly recommend finding a Tesla Model S with Autopilot and feeling it for yourself. It really is a profound experience.

(And I didn’t even mention the P90D’s Ludicrous mode, which is quite an experience on its own.)

 
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