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

Many car manufacturers have semi-autonomous features, but Tesla’s Autopilot seems to have captured the public attention the most. In this guide, we explain what the Autopilot can and can’t do, and cover off some of the recent improvements that have made it substantially more robust.

What are the Tesla Autopilot 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.

AP0 vs AP1 vs AP2 vs AP2.5

So now that we’ve gone through explaining what AutoPilot (AP) is and whether it’s legal or not, I’d like to turn to the various versions. While the Model S has been on sale here in Australia since December 2014, it’s been available in the US since 2012.

Since then there’s been versions that have no AutoPilot (AP0), AP1 which uses a few sensors and an EyeQ3 chip from a company called MobileEye and then the more current versions dubbed AP2 and AP2.5.

According to general information, all Model S cars built after around September or October 2014 had AP1. As such all Model S and X cars sold in Australia should have some form of AutoPilot in them.

From October 2016 onwards though Tesla started producing cars with AP2 hardware. This was a complete move away from using MobileEye’s chips as the two companies had a bit of a falling out.

The AP2 hardware is what is described in this article comprising of full 360 degree view cameras, radar, ultrasonics and so on. It is also the step up that should one day allow for full self driving of Tesla cars.

Then finally we have once again another update around August 2017 to AP2.5. This was a slight upgrade and while some claim that it added an additional nVidia Pascal GPU this isn’t actually the case.

“The internal name HW 2.5 is an overstatement, and instead it should be called something more like HW 2.1. This hardware set has some added computing and wiring redundancy, which very slightly improves reliability, but it does not have an additional Pascal GPU.” – Tesla

So as a quick sum up we have:

  • AP0: June 2014 to October 2014 – No AutoPilot
  • AP1: October 2014 to October 2016 – MobileEye EyeQ3
  • AP2: October 2016 to August 2017 – nVidia Pascal GPU + Full Self Driving
  • AP2.5: August 2017 to Present – Slight upgrade

Tesla has also said that it expects both AP2 and AP2.5 to be capable of performing fully self driving.

How can you tell which car has what version?

While the build date of the car will help a great deal in knowing which version you have, there are other ways to tell. If your car has one of the old front bumpers then it’s most likely to have AP1. You can tell if a Model S has AP1 if it has the front radar sensor on it that looks like this picture.

While it’s not always a 100% sure bet, if you own or are looking at buying one of the newer, facelifted Model S cars there’s a good chance it has AP2 or AP2.5 in it. This is because the facelifted or “2nd Gen” version of the Model S was released in April 2016.

It’s not clear if there are any actual Australian Model S cars out there that were bought after April 2016… but before October 2016 and thus would be the 2nd Gen… but with AP1 still in them. However it might be possible so make sure you check that it has full 360 degree cameras to be sure.

This issue is the same for the Model X as it was released in Australia in August 2016. As such it’s not clear if those models from August – October 2016 had AP1 or AP2 in them. As for telling if you have AP2 or AP2.5, well short of ripping out the main drive computer that’s located under the glove box it’s not really possible.

Recent OTA updates

In March 2018 Tesla pushed an OTA update for its AutoPilot system to all cars running AP2 and AP2.5. This was just the latest of many updates that have been rolled out over the past year and a half. It’s been a long road for Tesla to get the AP2/2.5 systems up to speed with some of the things the AP1 cars could do.

This is because Tesla essentially had to build the software from scratch after they moved away from using MobileEye and instead started using nVidia hardware and their own internally made Neural Net systems.

It’s now looking like the AP2/2.5 system is at par or likely even above where they were at with AP1. Many owners have posted videos like the one below detailing their experiences and what their impressions are.

For now the main focus is still on highway driving – where Tesla says you should be using it – but of course many are testing it out anywhere they can.

One particular new improvement besides the car not bouncing from side to side inside the lane and just being generally more “smooth” is that they can now handle off and on ramps a lot better, even when they’re quite tight turns.

Below is a Model S owner testing the new update on what he calls the Curve Of Death. A full loop on an American highway.

While it’s hard to keep up to date and track the huge number of changes Tesla do it’s quite clear that their AutoPilot system is a major focus.

While other manufactures are outsourcing the development or just generally lagging behind Tesla has continuously been reported as being the best when compared to even other top luxury models like Mercedes and BMW.

It will be fun to watch as they edge closer and closer to enabling their cars to be fully self driving. Hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer!

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

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