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What Is Autopilot, and Do Other Cars Besides Tesla Offer It?

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author photo by James Riswick August 2016

You might have heard that electric carmaker Tesla offers a function known as Autopilot. You may also have heard that it was recently involved in a fatal accident involving a Model S and a driver that did not notice a semi turning left. But what exactly is Autopilot, and is Tesla the only car company that features it?

The Basics

First, let's be very clear about what it's not: an actual autopilot (lowercase a). You can't plug an address into the navigation system, press "Go," then sit back and relax for a half hour as your car chauffeurs you to work. That would be an autonomous car, and although most car companies (plus Google and probably others) are working on such vehicles, we are not there yet.

Instead, Tesla's well-publicized feature is an advanced driver assistance system that uses cameras, sensors and various vehicle systems to maintain your speed, prevent you from running into slower-moving cars ahead, keep you in your lane and even change lanes for you. Indeed, very few other cars have all of these systems (the all-new Audi A4 is one of them), and Tesla gives over control of all of them to the car's electronic capabilities, requiring much less input from the driver.

For instance, once the adaptive cruise control system's speed and desired gap apart from the vehicle ahead is set, a quick double pull of the cruise-control stalk engages steering assist. With it, you can just put your hands in your lap and let the car steer for you. Should the many sensors encounter a problem or some other issue arises, the car unmistakably warns you to take command once again. Auto lane changes must also be summoned by the driver activating the turn signal.

Similar, But Not the Same

Other vehicles that feature both adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping systems possess similar highway autonomy, but not to the same extent as Tesla Autopilot. Take the Distronic Plus system with steering and active lane-keeping assist that's available on most Mercedes-Benz models. It, too, will maintain your speed and distance from a car ahead of you and does a very good job of steering for you on the highway, even around significant turns. Like Tesla, it also doesn't ping-pong between lane lines as lesser systems do, and you're likely to find yourself less tired and more alert after hours spent behind the wheel.

However, Mercedes-Benz requires that you keep a hand on that wheel -- or at least a finger or two. You don't actually have to steer to any appreciable degree, but keeping pressure on the rim lets it know that you're OK to take over if something happens that requires brain power to address -- instead of ones and zeros. The system in the 2017 Audi A4 and 2016 BMW 7 Series act in similar ways as Mercedes Distronic.

Autopilot, as well as many more other systems, is also able to drive for itself in stop-and-go traffic much in the same way it drives at higher speeds. These systems can come to a stop by themselves and then start back up again (though some require a quick tap of the throttle to get started again) while in some cases automatically steering, as well. That horrible commute in gridlock suddenly isn't so bad.

What to Keep in Mind

Should you be considering any car with such technologies, it's important to note that not all have the same number of driving assistance features. Look for terms such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist and lane-change assist. Also know that, like most vehicle elements, not all of these systems perform equally (take the 2016 Honda Accord vs. the Subaru Legacy, for instance). There can even be a difference between cars from the same brand, depending on whether they come with the latest versions of these systems. Make sure to ask questions, and look for reviews of these features in the larger, overall reviews of new cars.

It's also important to note that these systems were developed with the intention of accident prevention, as opposed to autonomy. Most importantly, they can automatically brake in an emergency or keep you in your lane. Those capabilities alone are increasingly widespread throughout the industry, with many nonluxury automakers offering such systems. Honda and Subaru in particular are greatly expanding their availability (check out this list of 7 Cars With Great Safety Feature Bundles).

So a true autopilot is not yet here, but the individual tools that could one day make it possible are certainly out there now to make your driving experience safer and less taxing.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
What Is Autopilot, and Do Other Cars Besides Tesla Offer It? - Autotrader