How Does Tesla Autopilot Work?


How Does Tesla Autopilot Work?

When it comes to conversations about electric cars, there are usually only two immediate topics that come to mind.

The first, and most important, is the kind of range can you expect out of any model electric car. The second question often asked is, what kind of self-drive mode is available and how good is it? Well, when it comes to self-driving, few cars on the road offer the level of visibility and quality that is Tesla’s Autopilot

There is little question across the automobile industry that Tesla Autopilot is considered breakthrough technology. While the world isn’t quite ready for self-driving in the sense that the driver performs no functions in a car from the start to finish of a driving trip, that is certainly the goal of Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, since he first started hyping up the technology in 2013.

With varying degrees of Autopilot available throughout the Tesla vehicle lineup, their goal of full self-driving through autonomous driving may not be too far away. Let’s break down everything you need to know about Tesla’s Autopilot.

Self-Driving Levels

When considering how Tesla’s Autopilot works, it helps to understand where the technology lives on the autonomous scale. Within the six available levels of autonomous driving created by the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration, most vehicles on the road come with Level 1 or 2 features. 

  • Levels 1 and 2 include autonomous technologies most people have enjoyed using for years. This includes things like lane keep assistance, lane change assistance, emergency braking, parking assistance, and adaptive cruise control. 
  • Level 3 is where Tesla lives right now with its Full-Self Driving autonomous technology. Within this level, when an autopilot system is engaged, the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving but the driver must be ready to take over the vehicle at any point. 
  • Level 4 technology is a heightened version of Level 3 where the vehicle handles every aspect of driving with a human taking over only in limited service areas. 
  • Level 5 technology, the highest level, is when the vehicle does not need a human driver to operate the vehicle as it can control every driving task. This is true under every type of weather and driving condition as well as on every type of roadway. 

What is Tesla Autopilot? 

According to Tesla, Autopilot is an advanced system within its vehicles that increases overall safety and driver convenience. Autopilot has a goal of being able to reduce the workload on the driver but equipping every Tesla model with external cameras and vision processing (think neural net processing) to help it see and understand the road. Tesla highlights that its cars are able to see the road around their vehicles and was originally designed to offer some type of basic self-driving on the highway. 

Tesla’s Autopilot has evolved quite a bit since its original form of being able to center a car in a lane or keep its distance from vehicles in front. Today, Tesla calls Autopilot the future of driving and there is no doubt Tesla is on to something and has made some of the most public progress in advancing this technology. Still, it’s important to note that other companies are looking to put their own spin on autopilot technology, though to varying degrees of success.

So, how far has Tesla really come on its autopilot system? As of March 2023, Tesla Autopilot currently has three different levels of availability and they all still require an attentive driver. 

Tesla Autopilot Levels


The standard autopilot system on all Tesla models is a suite of driver assistance features that are standard with the purchase of the Tesla Model S, 3, X, and Y. Within this standard system, you have two important features: 

  • The first feature is Traffic-Aware Cruise Control which helps match the speed of your car to that of the traffic surrounding your vehicle. 
  • The second feature is known as Autosteer, which uses traffic-aware cruise control to keep your Tesla inside a clearly marked lane. This is Tesla’s version of lane keep assist, which is the more common name used by other vehicle manufacturers. 

As of this writing, there is no additional cost for this feature as it comes standard with the purchase of every Tesla model. 

Enhanced Autopilot 

As the first of Tesla’s two more advanced autopilot systems, this is something of a middle ground between the basic Autopilot system and Tesla’s most advanced features with Full Self-Driving. Within Enhanced Autopilot, you have five different features on top of the features already available through the standard Autopilot system. These include: 

  • Auto Lane Change helps a Tesla easily change lanes when the turn signal is activated by the driver. 
  • When you use Navigate on Autopilot (currently in Beta), you have an opportunity to add an additional level of support to Auto Lane Change by suggesting different lane changes or how to navigate interchanges on a roadway to your Tesla vehicle. 
  • When using Autopark, your Tesla will help you parallel or perpendicularly park your car with just a press of a button on your vehicle’s touch screen
  • The Summon feature is arguably one of the coolest features of owning a Tesla and it will help the driver bring the vehicle out of a tight parking space using the Tesla mobile app. 
  • One step above the Summon feature is Smart Summon which also uses the mobile app and instructs the Tesla vehicle to navigate around a more complex parking area to help bring your vehicle closer to you. As one might imagine, this service still has its limits, but it’s very cool when it works. 

Enhanced Autopilot currently costs an additional $6,000 on top of the purchase price of your Tesla vehicle. The company has been known to adjust the price periodically, and it traditionally costs more if you wish to purchase it after your Tesla has been delivered. The good news is that this is a software-based service so you can always purchase it a month or a year after purchasing your Tesla vehicle. 

Full Self-Driving Capability 

Tesla’s most advanced Autopilot service is best known as Full Self-Driving. First previewed in the fourth quarter of 2016, Tesla CEO Elon Musk indicated that when this technology is fully ready, the driver is only there for legal reasons. While this may not be entirely accurate in practice, work has continued toward making this a reality for all Tesla vehicles.

As of today, Full Self-Driving Capability remains in a beta phase, though the company announced in February 2023 that around 360,000 Tesla vehicle owners were participating in the beta phase. 

  • Full-Self Driving Capability, or FSD as it’s commonly referred to, includes the functions of both the standard autopilot technology as well as Enhanced Autopilot. 
  • On top of these features, Traffic and Stop Sign Control (in Beta) enables the vehicle to identify a stop sign or traffic light and will automatically slow the vehicle when it detects either. The critical note is that it is detecting both of these stop points under active supervision from a licensed driver. 
  • In the future (date TBD), Tesla will release Autosteer on city streets which is yet to be properly defined by the company. 
  • As of March 2023, Tesla currently sells Full Self-Driving Capability with the purchase of any new Tesla vehicle as a $15,000 add on. 

Any Tesla vehicle purchased after April 2019 comes standard with the two Autopilot features listed above. If your Tesla vehicle was purchased before 2019, you can work with the company to see if your car has the necessary hardware and, if so, you are able to purchase Autopilot, Enhanced Autopilot, or Full-Self Driving Capability through a downloadable software update. 

self-driving car
Tesla’s Autopilot and Self-Driving capabilities use a variety of advanced technologies to operate the vehicle without the need for a driver in a way that is safe.


Autopilot Limitations

While there is universal agreement that full self-driving from any vehicle, manufactured by Tesla or otherwise, is still years away, the current service is pretty advanced but not without its limitations.

Tesla warns that there are a number of factors that can inhibit every level of the Autopilot service. These limitations include but are not limited to: 

  • Poor visibility which might be caused by heavy rain, snow, fog, or other difficult weather conditions including unusually hot or cold temperatures
  • Bright lights could interfere with Autopilot functionality and could be caused by the oncoming lights of another vehicle or when your Tesla is directly facing the sun
  • Other obstructions include Tesla vehicle wraps (third-party purchases), curvy roads, or some type of damaged bumper

How Safe is Tesla Autopilot? 

According to the NHTSA, of all accidents between July 2021 and May 2022 that included some type of self-driving system, just under 70% of those accidents included a Tesla vehicle. What’s important to know is that Tesla automatically reports these numbers which leads to a higher percentage, whereas other car manufacturers may not report this data in real-time. This breaks down to around 392 accidents in 11 months, which isn’t terribly alarming when you put into context that the state of Florida reported 381,156 vehicle accidents in 2022 alone. 

None of this is to say that self-driving and autopilot are any safer than a human driver and a Tesla self-driving accident receives far more media coverage than, say, that of Honda or Mercedes. On top of this, Tesla vehicles have repeatedly been reported as some of the safest vehicles on the road, according to both NHTSA and IIHS car testing.

More than 9 billion miles have been driven with some form of Autopilot engaged on a Tesla vehicle and, as the company learns more about how to improve, they can deliver updates through software that ensures updates can be frequent. 

What Does Tesla Autopilot Not Do? 

The biggest and most important warning to understand with Tesla Autopilot is that it is not built to drive a Tesla by itself or for any type of extended time period.

Whenever Autopilot is engaged, the driver in the vehicle should be alert and keep a close eye on road conditions/traffic and be ready to immediately take over control of the vehicle. As Full Self-Driving continues in its beta phase, the driver should be ready to also take over control of the vehicle in the event Autopilot responds in a way it’s not supposed to. 

Bottom Line

The promise of Tesla Autopilot is fantastic and the hope that one-day cars will be able to automatically drive themselves without human intervention is closer than ever. For now, Tesla Autopilot is definitely very much on the beta side and still has plenty of bugs to work through until it’s ready for mass use. There is definitely going to be a time when this type of technology is available to drivers of all vehicles, from every manufacturer. Until then, the hope is that Tesla can continue to improve on Autopilot in meaningful ways and keep rolling to a complete Level 4 autonomous level.

How Does Tesla Autopilot Work? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

How long does it take for Autopilot to calibrate on a Tesla car before it can be enabled?

Ideally, calibration will take around 20-25 miles of driving but actual mileage may vary based on road and environmental driving conditions. 

What is the current pricing of Tesla’s Autopilot options?

The basic Autopilot feature is included as standard with all Tesla vehicles. Enhanced Autopilot is $6,000 at the time of purchase and Full Self-Driving is $15,000. 

Is Tesla’s Autopilot as dangerous as the media makes it out to be?

Anytime an accident using Autopilot occurs, it becomes a media hit but the reality is that the rate of incidents with Autopilot is really low. 

Can you try Tesla Autopilot before purchasing?

If you happen to be near a Tesla store location, you can try out Enhanced Autopilot or Full Self-Driving on a test drive. 

What autonomous driving level is Tesla Autopilot currently considered?

As of right now, based on Tesla’s most advanced Autopilot functional with Full Self-Driving, they currently sit at Level 3. 

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