Look Mum No Hands! Tech Digest reviews the Tesla Model S Autopilot feature

The Tesla Model S outside the company's Oxford Street store
The Tesla Model S parked outside the company’s flagship Oxford Street store in London

Although I’ve written about electric vehicles (EV) for some time, and test driven quite a few in my time, one has always alluded me. The Tesla Model S. It’s probably not the best known EV on the market, at least among the general public, but it’s generally regarded by experts as the best in breed. And with good reason.

While some electric cars can feel a little gimmicky – like you wouldn’t feel you wouldn’t be taken that seriously driving one – there is something reassuring about the Model S. It looks and feels like a ‘proper car’, so much so that it could easily be mistaken for a Lexus or maybe a Jaguar, rather than a state-of-the-art all electric vehicle from South African born tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s fast-growing company.

For the Tesla test drive we headed down to Tesla’s recently opened London showroom on Oxford Street, opposite the enormous Selfridges store. There we were shown the latest version of the Model S (the first models were launched back in 2012).

Although I’ve seen the Model S before at various shows and on display at airports, I’ve never been inside.  It’s certainly a very comfortable car. There’s a lot of leg room although I needed to lower the seat as much as possible as head room isn’t the most generous.


With the Tesla supercharger you can fill up
With the Tesla supercharger, above, you can get a range of 170 miles from around 30 minutes of charging

Great family car

One bonus, especially for those with large families, is that it’s a six seater with two rear facing seats in the boot which are suitable for small children. But although there’s plenty of room for your legs there’s not much headroom at the back either, making it unsuitable for older children or adults.

What I really like about the Model S is its attention to detail. It may be a small thing, but I love the handles which are flush to the doors until you press them in and they slowly emerge, like a dampened cassette deck from the early 1980s (yes I am old enough to remember).

Inside it’s the same too. It’s a bit like how you imagine Apple will design their EV when it eventually comes – and it will. In fact the control unit in the centre of the vehicle feels much like a giant iPad with a very similar interface. Just about every aspect of the car can be controlled via an enormous portrait-shaped display screen, measuring 17inches vertically.

Obviously this includes the voice activated GPS and a giant map which also shows you the distance you are away from your nearest Tesla Super Charger points (these are free for Tesla owners to use although it’s obviously possible to pay to use other charging points too if you aren’t near one of the Tesla chargers).

These rear facing seats are great for younger children and can be folded away neatly if you need the boot space
These rear facing seats are great for younger children and can be folded away neatly if you need the boot space

In our central London location there were plenty of charging points marked on the map at places like Westfield and Brent Cross shopping centres and service stations like South Mimms.

The Model S promises a range of around 300 miles on a single charge with Superchargers able to provide around 170 miles of range in around 30 minutes. When you are driving the range you have left is clearly shown on the display to help overcome ‘range anxiety’ – the fear you are going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with no way of charging your car.

Just about every aspect of the car’s functionality from locking and unlocking the doors, turning the windscreen wipers on and off and adjusting the heating can be controlled by the central display.

Even opening the sunroof is controlled from here with the amount the sunroof is open displayed as a percentage on the screen! There’s also a companion app too which allows you to switch the heating on in the car before you get in as well as check where you have parked your car and how much the range you have left before setting off on your journey.

Voice activated control is provided too apparently, although we didn’t test this out for ourselves.

Updates to the system’s software are provided over the car’s built in 3G connection (soon to be updgraded to 4G) although it will automatically sync with the wi-fi, say if you have parked outside of your house.

Look Mum no hands!

While most of this functionality has been around for some time, one brand new feature for the Tesla S is called Autopilot. Essentially what it represents is the first stage towards the much hyped autonomous car, in that it allows you to relinquish some of your control as a driver to the vehicle itself.

So how does it work? Using a combination of radar and sonar technology built into the vehicle, along with the car’s built in cameras, the Model S is first of all able to determine where other vehicles and objects, such as pedestrians, are around you. These are even shown on the display by the steering wheel with the possibility for you to set the distance you are away from other cars as well as your speed (by default this is set at speed limit for the road).

However, the technology goes one step further in that it will also detect the white lines on the road to keep you in lane and if you indicate will move you into the other lane when it is safe to do so.

The extremely large 17inch display can be used to control just about every aspect of the car
The extremely large 17inch display can be used to control just about every aspect of the car’s functionality from entertainment to air conditioning

For our test drive, we used Autopilot for a short stretch along the Westway A40 by Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherds Bush which apparently has more distinctive white lines than other areas of central London (don’t worry, if the Autopilot can’t see the lines properly it will tell you!)

To switch Autopilot on you simply toggle a button on the left hand side of the steering wheel and the car will do the rest. In the UK at least it is currently illegal to take your hands off the wheel while driving and if you are seen by the police you could be charged with dangerous driving.

However, I did test out Autopilot by taking my hands off the wheel but ensuring they were hovering just above if I needed to take control back very quickly. Currently the system is set so if your hands are off the wheel for more than a minute it will tell you to put your hands back on!

I tested the system for a maximum period of five minutes along a 40 mile an hour stretch of the A40 and was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked. Sure the first few seconds were a little bit hairy as I thought we were heading into the car in the next lane as we rounded a bend.

But then I realised that actually the technology worked just fine and the car was making subtle adjustments to the steering to keep us in the correct lane. Would I buy this car for the Autopilot feature though? Probably not.

For me driving is about being in control and I can’t imagine driving for more than a few seconds with my hands on the wheel under normal circumstances (maybe if you needed to check the screen for some reason it could be useful though). However, I can certainly see the appeal of the Tesla S.

It’s a pretty good looking car, stuffed with loads of features and drives pretty well. It also has ferocious acceleration – though you don’t really get the benefit of that in central London.

Obviously the price is still very high, and the £5000 government subsidy you get for buying one is being reduced to £4500 from March 1st. However, I can definitely see me buying the next generation of Tesla, the Model 3 which is due out in 2017 and which promises to be half the price.

Three variants of the Tesla Model S are available. The entry level version (70D) has a 70kWh battery and is priced from £58,000 while the larger capacity 90kWh model (90D) costs £69,300. There’s also a range-topping Performance model (P90D) that uses the 90KWh battery and has a more powerful motor that’s priced at £86,800. The Ludicrous Speed upgrade which reduces 0-60mph acceleration time to 2.8 seconds costs another £8,700. A £4,500 government grant is available to all those buying the Model S (£5,000 until February 28th). To find out more about Tesla visit https://www.teslamotors.com/en_GB/

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Chris Price
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