We’re currently in a fascinating time for autonomous vehicles (AVs) as they finally begin to proliferate onto our roads. However, right now only one company is putting anything resembling autonomy on the road: the luxury electric vehicle maker Tesla. I’m very interested in all of the exciting directions this technology will take us, so I wanted to experience for myself how it all works.
So, in August, I scheduled a test drive of a Tesla Model X at the Tesla dealership nearest to my home in Colorado. Anyone can schedule a test drive with one of these luxury cars, there is no down payment or any money involved; you simply must be 21 years old with a driver’s license and insurance.
I encourage everyone with an interest in AVs to seek out this experience, despite the nearest Tesla showroom being two and a half hours away in Westchester, NY. As fun as it is to drive the Tesla, it’s especially exciting when the Tesla drives you.
I walked into the Tesla showroom a few minutes before my scheduled test drive. A visit to one of these showrooms is an experience in itself, as you get to take a close look at multiple Tesla models, with all of the options and plan out the customization of your ideal car. Sit down in one of the driver’s seats and you can dive into the settings and controls of the car on a 17-inch touchscreen display where you’re used to there only being a radio.
After getting to absorb the showroom, I walked out to my test drive with a salesperson who was only moderately annoyed that I’m a college student that will clearly not actually be buying a Tesla, at least for a few years. Nonetheless, she was happy to be spreading the word of Tesla, as she told me she has been driving a Model S herself for a few years.
As we approached the car, I enjoyed my first taste of the technology installed in this car for luxury purposes only, as my salesperson informed me that I only had to walk up to the car and the door will open for me. Sure enough, my approach to the car signalled the driver’s seat door to open, stopping an inch or two away from the adjacent car. I got in the car and sat down, and then watched as the door automatically closes behind me. Unreal.
As I prepared to drive, I noticed there was no key, or even an “on” button. The salesperson explained that no key is needed since the car recognizes a key fob that she keeps in her pocket. To turn the car on, just hit the acceleration pedal and the car will start moving. “Right,” I thought, “the car is electric. What is there to start?”
As I started driving, I was surprised at the force I felt with even the slightest touch of the accelerator. Of course, Teslas are known for their powerful acceleration, and I thought back to the disclaimer I signed beforehand making it clear that I am responsible for any speeding tickets collected during the test drive.
Beginning my approach to the highway, I became excited to finally turn on the Tesla’s Autopilot mode, in which the car maintains the proper speed, follows a lane and changes lanes automatically while driving on the highway. This was the AV technology I went to see. Sure, it has its limits, but it’s fascinating as is.
As I entered the highway onramp, I was given directions to engage the autopilot. “Just pull on the cruise control twice, listen for the beep, and press on the accelerator.” And before I knew it, the car was in control. I didn’t feel as though I was going fast at all, but the speedometer put me a few miles over the speed limit. It’s actually terrifying at first, to be honest. But after a few seconds, and a deep breath, I allowed myself to relax and placed my hands on my legs as the steering wheels stayed straight.
Unfortunately, it was over as quickly as it began. Only a minute or two later I was driving myself onto the highway to turn around and go back to the showroom. The entire time I was thinking, “How long until I can get one of these??”
It’s actually unbelievable that we’re approaching the point at which cars can handle driving for us, though there is a long way to go before cars will be sold without steering wheels. My experience behind the self-turning wheel of a Tesla has only made me more excited for this future. A week later, as I was driving from Colorado back to Union to start the school year, I kept thinking about how badly I want a car that would drive itself so I could take a nap.
As this technology continues to develop, we’ll start seeing it in more surprising places. For now, we can expect that with all of the work and money being thrown this development, we’re only a few years away. Spending a few minutes being driven by a Tesla has only made me more impatient for the day I can take a nap and let the car drive me.