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Tesla Autopilot self-driving car tech tested in the UK

We let the Tesla Model S do all the hard work, driving itself on the M4 following Version 7.0 Autopilot update

Tesla recently released its new ‘Version 7.0’ software package, allowing existing owners to download an update to enable a variety of Autopilot features on their Tesla Model S electric cars. Once downloaded the code tweaks give the Model S a range of autonomous driving capabilities and we couldn’t wait to try them on UK roads.

We were among the first to get to grips with the latest instalment of Autopilot in the UK, in a recently updated Tesla Model S 85. Version 7.0 had been downloaded via the car’s built-in WiFi overnight, ready for us to drive down the M4 hands-free at 9am the next day. 

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While normal OTA (over the air) updates are free, the addition of Autopilot will require a one-off payment of £2,100 on new cars, or £2,500 if added post delivery. All safety features – side collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, forward collision warning and speed limit warning – are all free.

There are a few changes of note with 7.0. The first is a user interface tweak to permit access to the updated features list. It’s essentially an additional check box in the car’s settings menu that allows owners to switch the Autopilot features on or off. This update also includes a more complex tyre pressure monitoring system, which in turn refreshes the dials behind the steering wheel.

But the big news is of course the Autopilot system itself, which includes auto steer, lane change and parallel park technology. That’s in addition to the ‘traffic aware’ radar cruise system already available for Model S.

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Essentially, it allows you to maintain a constant speed on motorways and dual carriageways, with no steering, throttle or brake input from the driver. It works by using a combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and owner-captured data to autonomously guide the car down a given stretch of road. In our case, the M4 northbound between West Drayton and Slough.

It’s incredibly easy to use. While it’s not always on, it’s constantly monitoring 360 degrees around the car and scanning for white lines on the road. As soon as it tracks a line to both the left and right, it signals to the driver by illuminating a dial on the dash. A simple pull of the cruise control stalk activates the set speed, while another two quick pulls initialise the auto steer. A quick dab of the brakes cancels everything and returns control solely to the driver.

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While it feels a little strange at first, you quickly become accustomed to the idea of your car essentially driving itself. The lane keeping setup isn’t jerky like some we’ve tried before – all you’ll notice is gentle corrections as you navigate bends – and it’ll brake smoothly to a standstill from 70mph. But let’s not forget this is a Tesla, so it’s all done in absolute silence. 

Changing lanes is a little more complex. The Model S will reduce its speed if it detects a vehicle in front, but there’s no functionality to pass slower moving traffic just yet. Instead, it requires the user to indicate left or right and lightly grip the wheel before it moves lanes – and it’s the driver’s responsibility to ensure its safe to move.

Tesla tells us there are other further improvements in this ‘Version 7.0’ update, though. Owners are already reporting a five to 10 per cent improvement in range on non-dual motor (rear-wheel drive) cars thanks to clever trickery under the skin – meaning an improved range of more than 325 miles on the more powerful Model S 85.

The system advises you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times, and to remain alert to changing traffic conditions, but it does feel like it could take you from London to Birmingham, say, with very little input from the driver. It’s our first taste of semi-autonomous driving, and the prospect of a fully-automated setup is unarguably edging ever closer.

Read more about the latest driverless car tech here...

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