Autopilot is the latest catchphrase in the world of ultra-luxury automobiles, and with more manufacturers making the high-tech feature available on current models, it's crucial that consumers understand how to use autopilot safely to avoid danger to themselves and other motorists. The future of automotive transportation may indeed see us fully relying on automobiles to do the driving without human input, but we're not there yet.
Using autopilot still requires an alert and focused human driver. In fact, the system's safety record is only marginally better than that of conventional cars. Check out the video below for an in-depth look at how autopilot is really just an updated version of cruise control.
Even when autopilot is engaged, you should keep two hands on the wheel and be on the lookout for potential obstacles in the road. Hitting the brakes at any time will switch your car back into manual driving mode. Scenarios, when this might be necessary, include drivers cutting you off, construction zones or unexpected road debris. Similarly, when traveling in the right most lane, autopilot may track road markings that lead you off the highway, even if that wasn't your intention. As a rule, it's generally a good idea to refrain from using autopilot on undivided highways where the lack of road markings can fetter the system's logic.
A good example is the infamous Tesla crash in which a driver with autopilot engaged failed to notice a semi-truck merging into his lane. The system scanners missed the truck because its reflective siding blinded them, resulting in a fatal accident. Paying attention while behind the wheel can prevent more incidents like this.
Many of these scenarios involve inclement weather, which can interfere with autopilot sensors that scan the road. If the roads are wet, you'll need to be alert in case glare from water on the road causes lane-tracking sensors to miss information. During in dense fog or heavy snow, autopilot remains functional, but in may not be able to accurately follow road markings. If this is the case, the system will alert you and attempt to track the vehicle in front of you, but if that car changes lanes into open space, autopilot will copy this move even if another vehicle is in your blind spot because it thinks that's the way the road is turning. To prevent an accident, pay extra attention while using autopilot in bad weather, or disengage autopilot until the weather clears.
Just as when you're driving manually, pedestrians jumping out into the road can catch autopilot by surprise. Should a person or an animal make its way onto the road unexpectedly, you'll need to take action to ensure you avoid an accident. Trusting autopilot in this situation is not a good idea.
In the future, we can look forward to autopilot systems getting better than they are today. It wasn't so long ago that Mercedes was testing its laser-guided lane-following system in the fog, only to have the test car completely rear end the dummy lead car. Since then, the company has improved the feature, and it passed the test.
Should you avoid purchasing a car with an autopilot or auto-assist function altogether? No. However, it's likely the longer you wait, the better a system you'll receive. Such is the way things go with new technologies, and the future of network-aware cars means that soon, vehicles in lanes next to one another might even be able to communicate their next move to ensure the safety of passengers.
At the time of writing, the system has been shown to reduce the chance of a minor accident by 61 percent compared to a human driver, and reduce the about of major accidents by 36 percent. It's possible that things will get safer in the future when all cars track the road using an autopilot-style system. However, for the time being, it's important to be alert behind the wheel, even with autopilot engaged.