Road Trip on Autopilot

What will you do in a car when it drives itself?

Self-driving cars are only a few years away from being a reality and companies like AVE are actively working on solutions for what you will do in a car that drives itself.  Idle time for riders will be used for everything from consuming entertainment content to productivity applications that help you get more work done.  Back in July, my family left for Portland and we decided to drive across country in a Tesla Model S and this is our road trip experience on autopilot.

Hoa and I drove 2,800 miles with our two kids from Columbus to Portland in the closest thing to a self-driving car.  We tracked the trip to see how much driving really can be done on autopilot and to share our experience with semi-autonomous driving.  We tracked our trip with a spreadsheet and the stopwatch on an iPhone.  We tracked charging time, stop time, autopilot time, and manual driving time and logged over 200 line items during the 5 day trip.


Quick Trip Summary

59% of our total trip time was hands-free and on some days it was over 80%.  That doesn’t mean sleep or watching a movie.  With Level 3 autonomous vehicles, you still need to be ready to take the wheel if driving conditions or the road changes.  There were stretches from Illinois to Montana where we had 2 and a half hours of constant autopilot.  This creates time for deep conversation, research on the driver facing browser, and just enjoying the scenery.  We left just a few weeks after the story of the driver in Florida who died while watching a movie when his car was on autopilot.  I am not going to get into why that likely happened, but we knew the locations and conditions that cause problems with the autopilot and made sure to be ready to take over at any time.

When Doesn’t Autopilot Work

There are a few things that a Level 3 autonomous vehicle like the Tesla Model S won’t do (yet).  Tesla uses MobileEye sensors that surround the car to map the road and give the vehicle context to know where to go. It does this by tracking lines on the road and vehicles nearby.  If there are no lines on the road or very wide lines, like at an off-ramp or construction zone, the vehicle forces the driver to take control.  It won’t stop at stop signs or red lights unless there is a car in front of you.  It doesn’t do hard turns and you can’t put in an address and be driven to your destination.  When the road changes elevation and you crest over the horizon, it will lose the lines on the road and prompt the driver to take control.  Heavy rain distorts the cars sensors and causes the lines on the road to jump from side to side while the car minimally swerves inside the lanes.  Lastly, blazing sunlight, typically when driving into a sunrise or sunset, causes the sensors to white out.  This sensor white out is one of the speculated causes of the fatal crash in Florida.

Construction zones, unmarked roads, and the occasional weather disruption were a few of the scenarios that caused us to not use autopilot. On day three, we ventured up to Mount Rushmore and we chose to keep our hands on the wheel as we drove up the mountain.  If we had not made that detour, we probably would have had an even higher total percentage of autopilot time.  Mt. Rushmore was worth it.

Self-Driving Cars in Columbus

Columbus is going to be amongst the first communities to experience autonomous transportation because of the DOT Smart City grant.  Self-driving cars are going to impact many industries from automakers to insurance and vehicle ownership will fundamentally change from ownership to sharing. The circular economy will unlock a $4.5 trillion market when you no longer have a vehicle asset that sits idle for 90%+ of the day.  Some people are embracing the sea change of self-driving, while others are skeptical of the technology or fear a loss of control (which comes out in statements like, “But I love driving”).   The most advanced, semi-autonomous vehicle on the road is the Tesla Model S and Model X.  It is the only vehicle that allows you to take your hands completely off the wheel, but technically and legally it is not self-driving.  This is classified as Level 3 Vehicle Automation.

Consumers can’t yet buy a fully autonomous vehicle and NTSB legislation will need to catch up with the technology before robots are controlling the streets.  Self-driving cars will be the standard because of safety. Every year there are more than a million fatalities, but that number should be drastically reduced with the safety that comes with self-driving cars.

There will be a lot of education and communication that needs to happen before everyone is comfortable with the idea of self-driving cars.  This will come with exposure and first-hand experience through the Smart Cities program or even just a self-driving Uber.  As companies like Local Motors introduce mass-transit vehicles like Olli, infotainment and content delivery experiences will play a critical role in educating drivers on how to be passengers in a car with a mind of its own.

The Result

We manually tracked the trip, so there is a margin of error to our method.  This research is meant to show how close we are to living in a world where cars drive themselves.  We didn’t get to drive through the night or sleep because of autopilot, but we did benefit from drastically reduced driver fatigue.  You don’t realize how much stress is put on your mind and body from driving. Even after a 10 hour day of driving, we arrived with energy and we never dreaded getting in the car the next morning.  We also didn’t spend a dime on energy because we utilized the Tesla Supercharger network.  This forced us to stop every two and a half hours or so.

If you are interested in checking out our data, you can view the spreadsheet here.  If you find an error or see something we missed, please contact us.  If you are interested in what we are doing in Portland, follow AVE on twitter to track our experience in the Jaguar Land Rover incubator.

In short, we would do it again.  Driving across the country with our two kids was an adventure we will never forget and to get to experience that in a semi-autonomous vehicle was surreal.  We also learned a lot about media consumption experiences and have a better vision for how we will spend our time in a car in the future.

If you want to experience self-driving, find your closest Tesla store.  They are awesome about giving no obligation test rides and the customer service experience is unlike any other automaker.  Drive safe!