The basics of Tesla Autopilot – what it does and is it legal in Australia?

Many car manufacturers have semi-autonomous features, but Tesla’s Autopilot seems to have captured the public attention the most. According to their Australian website it can do many things and is classified as a Level 2 autonomous system.

But what are it’s capabilities in Australia, and is it even legal here?

The Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) has decided to follow the SAE International classification system. This separates autonomous driving systems into six levels from 0 to 5.

Tesla Autopilot

In its current form the Autopilot system fits squarely within the Level 2 section or “Partial Automation”. Tesla has a long term vision, like many other manufacturers, to push that right through to Level 5 one day.

What is Tesla Autopilot exactly?

While many people and articles refer to Tesla’s autonomous car abilities as just “Autopilot” this is a bit wrong. Originally it was referred to as just this but now the company has updated everything to three distinct parts.

  • Standard Safety Features
  • Enhanced Autopilot
  • Full Self-Driving Capability

While all Tesla’s are now built with the full suite of sensors seen below, including the new Model 3, you have to pay to get Enhanced Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability.

Source: tesla.com

If you have some time, this video from the US-based ‘Nerdy Engineer’ covers the basics of what it can do and his take on how and when you should use it.

Standard Safety Features of Teslas

At a base, minimum level all Teslas come standard with the “Standard Safety Features”. These include Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Side Collision Warning, Front Collision Warning and Auto High Beams.

These state of the art features have been rolling out through OTA updates. While not what most people refer to when they talk about autonomous cars, they do fall in under Level 1 according to SAE.

Tesla Enhanced Autopilot

This is where the Autopilot name comes into play. The features involved are meant to be similar to an aeroplanes autopilot which is where the name originated from. Enhanced Autopilot or “EA” is a paid for upgrade that costs $6,900 AUD (or $8,300 AUD to upgrade after the car has been delivered).

With this extra upgrade you unlock additional features. These include having your Tesla match speed to the car in front of you. It will keep within a lane (often called Autosteer) and also change from one lane to another without requiring any driver input.

The system can also exit the freeway you’re driving on when you’re approaching your destination. It’ll also self-park itself which many other cars do already. On top of all these features there’s also “Summon”. This allows it to go in/out of a garage or parking spot while you’re not even in the car.

Source: tesla.com

Full Self-Driving Capability

While all the above prior features are either already available or very close to being rolled out OTA this feature is a bit further off. Once again Full Self-Driving Capability is a paid for extra that will set you back an additional $4,100 AUD on top of the EA costs.

However for that money you get the full future in your car – once it has been enabled in software, at some as yet undetermined point in the future.

I’ll let Tesla explain it…

Enabling full self-driving in almost all circumstances, at what we believe will be a probability of safety at least twice as good as the average human driver. The system is designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat. For Superchargers that have automatic charge connection enabled, you will not even need to plug in your vehicle.

That’s right, it will even charge the car automatically for you! Unfortunately the kicker here is that while you can already buy a Tesla with the full hardware installed and even pay for this feature, it’s not ready yet.

Please note that Self-Driving functionality is dependent upon extensive software validation and regulatory approval, which may vary widely by jurisdiction. It is not possible to know exactly when each element of the functionality described above will be available, as this is highly dependent on local regulatory approval.

You can see a test of this in a video Tesla released not too long ago:

Is Tesla Autopilot legal in Australia?

With Tesla’s Autopilot systems, you can see the question on legality is somewhat grey. For the Standard Safety Features that are included in all models the answer is yes. They are 100% legal and greatly increase the safety of your car.

For the Enhanced Autopilot feature set things start to get a bit fiddlier. Each state in Australia has its own driving laws. On top of this when it comes to autonomous driving laws there’s no actual laws yet. You have many different states encouraging trials and even a few going ahead, but no official laws have been passed except for some minor amendments in South Australia.

As such the current driving laws are what we must go by. These all seem to centre around the driver “always having their hands on the steering wheel”. Your Tesla might be driving itself with Enhanced Autopilot… but legally speaking you must still have your hands on the steering wheel at all times.

This advice is even advocated by Tesla when in 2015 they made an official statement regarding it:

The Autopilot technology passes all regulations with the outline to all customers that hands are to remain on the steering wheel at all times – Tesla spokesperson speaking with Mashable Australia

Is Full Self-Driving Capability legal in Australia?

Even though the OTA update allowing this capability isn’t released yet, the answer is no. There are some trials and limited allowances for testing purposes but they still insist on having a valid driver behind the wheel.

It is these tests though that will pave the way for Australia to make the laws for the future. Hopefully they can do this in time as Tesla are charging forward with fully self-driving autonomy. CEO Elon Musk has recently promised to give a full demonstration of this too.

November or December of this year, we should be able to go all the way from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York with no controls touched in the entire journey.

Based on this, I’d suspect that the full self-driving capability being bought with a Tesla now is probably not a feature worth spending on, given that upgrades are possible (although more expensive) in future, and many people would likely sell the car within the time it will take for it to become legal in this country.

So what level are you comfortable with? Would you let your car drive you are completely? Or are you only going to let it do the parking for you?

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