Hands-off behind the wheel of an Autopilot-equipped Tesla Model S

A fully autonomous Tesla? Not quite. With the latest software update, we finally get a taste of the eagerly anticipated Autopilot mode.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
3 min read

Watch this: Going for a ride in a Tesla Model S on Autopilot

We're still years away from a Tesla that can deliver you safely to work whilst you doze serenely in the driver's seat, but both the Model S and Model X took a big step in that direction today. Tesla released Version 7.0 of the software that powers its vehicles, and it comes with a new trick: Autopilot.

The software update will roll out gradually over the next five days, automatically applying itself to all Model X SUVs and all Model S sedans produced since October 2014. Software updates, while largely a curiosity among the auto industry, have become commonplace for Tesla owners. Still, this is the biggest update by far, and it delivers a handful of Autopilot features.

The main feature, Autosteer, is basically an advanced lane departure assist system. The car will automatically stay in a lane, slowing down as necessary to avoid traffic and steering around curves. The vehicle can even change lanes, though only when prompted by the driver hitting the turn signal and when the car detects the way is clear.

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Autosteer did an admirable job avoiding traffic on busy city streets, even giving room for a Honda that was very keen on merging ahead of us. However, it won't detect things like yield signs and does not read traffic lights. On the highway where traffic moves more predictably (and where we hope to test one soon), you'll surely be able to relax a little more.

The Palo Alto, California, automaker said drivers must keep their hands on the wheel, but in our limited testing the car was actually quite lenient. For example, the driving assistant system in the BMW 7 Series allows you to take your hands off the wheel for 15 seconds before it starts beeping obnoxiously. Tesla's system seemingly lets you go hands-off for as long as you want. It will eventually start beeping, but there's an option to turn off the chime.

Tesla isn't the only company taking steps toward autonomous cars. Toyota, Nissan, General Motors and Google all plan to have self-driving vehicles on the road by 2020. Even iPhone maker Apple is reportedly working on an electronic, partially-self-driving vehicle. Supporters of autonomous vehicles say they will significantly improve safety on roadways.

Tesla Autopilot Display
While you can go completely hands-off, Tesla suggests keeping your hands on the wheel because the software is still on the nascent side. Tesla

Ultimately, Tesla's system is very nicely composed. Autosteer can smoothly and cleanly handle traffic and is able to come to a complete stop and resume speed without any driver intervention. It takes a huge amount of stress and pressure out of driving in traffic. Again, you should always be paying attention, because the system will throw control back to the driver when it needs to.

Updated Model S and X vehicles will also be able to slot themselves into parallel parking spots. Drivers need only cruise slowly past an open spot and then enable Autopark, at which point the car will handle all the hard work. You can keep your hands off the wheel and feet of the pedals.

Tesla owners should keep an eye out for a pop-up on their car's touchscreen display prompting them to update. Just make sure you aren't going anywhere for awhile before you apply it. The software update could take upwards of two hours to download.