Tesla gets a lot of attention for its Autopilot feature, which the company touts as offering “full self-driving” capabilities, suggesting that a new Model S or Model Y is essentially an autonomous car. Earlier this month, though, Tesla admitted to California regulators that their cars are anything but. “The currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous,” the company’s website says. “Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment,” the site adds.
I spoke to a friend who drives a Tesla with Autopilot, and he described the experience as follows: “Driving a Tesla on Autopilot is like watching a baby for hours. You’re not really doing anything, but at the end, you’re still exhausted.” Musk and others have promised the world self-driving cars since at least 2016, but instead, we’ve gotten an uncanny valley of self-driving. Cars like Teslas are good enough to take some burden off human drivers with fancy sensors and software, but still require our undivided attention when we’re driving them.
That’s bad news for customers who spent thousands on Tesla’s fancy cars with the expectation that they’d be ferrying the kids to school (or earning money as robot taxis) by now. But it’s good news for the rest of us. While Tesla has been focusing on self-driving party tricks like Auto Summon and automatic lane-changing, other carmakers have been quietly upgrading their base-model cars with increasingly complex sensors, radar, and software. The end result is that many entry-level consumer cars now have self-driving capacities which rival Autopilot. Under many conditions, my base model Honda Odyssey minivan can drive itself just as well as a fancy Tesla Model X.
Unlike Tesla, though, legacy automakers aren’t inclined to switch self-driving features on by default, or even to call the features “self-driving” in the first place. That means that drivers of non-Teslas often need to work harder to learn to use their car’s self-driving features effectively. Here are my tips for leveraging existing functions to turn your basic car into one that can drive itself nearly as well as a Tesla on Autopilot.
Self-driving cars are assigned a “level” based on their capabilities, with Level Zero representing your mom’s classic Firebird convertible (or your beat-up 2005 Toyota Camry) with no automated features, and Level Five representing a car that can operate itself with no human driver present. Tesla’s Autopilot is considered a Level Two system. That means a Tesla on Autopilot can slow down and speed up to match surrounding traffic, and can perform basic steering functions to keep itself within lane markers. It can also brake suddenly to avoid a crash if necessary.
To determine whether your own car can do the same things, begin by figuring out what kinds of sensors and software it includes. Many legacy carmakers refer to self-driving systems as “adaptive cruise control,” “advanced driver assist,” and the like. Many also assign their systems a brand name which implies that the systems are an offshoot of traditional cruise control, or are there for assistance only. Cadillac offers Super Cruise, for instance, and Toyota calls its system Toyota Safety Sense. This is probably intended to placate consumers, who are still fearful of self-driving vehicles.
Take a look at this list of the systems offered by major carmakers, and determine whether your own car came equipped with any of them. Many manufacturers are now including these systems even on base model vehicles, so if you’re purchased or leased a car in the last two to three years, it’s likely your car already has at least some of the features required for Level Two self-driving. You can also check your car visually for sensors. Most cars with Level Two capabilities include a forward-facing camera embedded in the windshield, and many also include radar sensors, which look like little circles embedded in the bumper. My Odyssey comes with Honda Sensing, which uses a front-facing windshield camera.
Once you’ve got a sense of what hardware and software your car is working with, determine what your manufacturer calls each of its self-driving features. Then, learn when and how you can use that feature, and start testing each feature out.
To match Tesla’s Autopilot, you’re looking for three main capabilities:
- The ability to automatically follow a car ahead of you and match its speed (longitudinal control).
- The ability to stay in a lane (lateral control).
- The ability to automatically brake suddenly in an emergency.
Emergency braking is relatively common, has been available since at least 2006, and is often enabled by default. Look for an emergency braking icon on your car’s dashboard, and make sure you haven’t inadvertently switched it off. On my own Honda Odyssey, emergency braking is controlled by a dashboard switch with a graphic of a car smashing into the car ahead of it, with the crash represented by a little cartoony star. I keep mine enabled all the time.
Most non-Tesla automakers call longitudinal control (auto-following) features either “adaptive cruise control” or “traffic jam assist.” These systems use cameras, radar, and stability sensors to detect where your car is on the road, and to determine the location, distance, and speed of other vehicles. The systems then adjust your car’s speed dynamically to maintain a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of you, even if that vehicle speeds up or slows down. Some longitudinal control systems can continue to auto-follow even in stop-and-go traffic, whereas others switch off if your car decelerates below a specific speed (mine stops below 22 mph).
To use adaptive cruise control, you generally have to switch the system on by selecting a specific target speed. Your car will then match that speed if traffic allows, or will slow down to keep a safe distance from slower-moving vehicles ahead of you. On my Odyssey, I like to set the adaptive cruise control to the speed limit. If there’s no traffic, the minivan will cruise along at an ideal highway speed. If someone ahead of me slows down, the Odyssey will slow down too, before automatically accelerating back up to cruising speed once the traffic has cleared.
In many cars (mine included), you can set your adaptive cruise control’s following distance manually. You should set this based on the driving norms where you live. On the East Coast where I grew up, leaving even two car lengths between you and the car ahead would be an invitation for another driver to veer into this “open” spot and cut you off. That’s dangerous because your adaptive cruise control would then have to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. On the friendlier West Coast, I can set a following distance of several car lengths, and people rarely jump in to violate it. Whatever distance you set, make sure there’s enough following distance that you could manually stop in time should the car ahead of you brake suddenly. If you can’t allow this much room, switch off adaptive cruise control and drive the old-fashioned way.
Once you’re figured out adaptive cruise control and achieved longitudinal control, look for features that allow your car to stay in its lane. The technical term for this capability is “lateral control,” but manufacturers often call it “lane following assist” or “automatic lane centering.” The systems use your car’s front-facing camera to find lane markers on the road, and then to keep your car centered within those markers. Some vehicles also add infrared sensors to help detect faint lane markers.
As with adaptive cruise control, you often need to turn these systems on manually. In my Odyssey, there’s a separate switch that enables what Honda calls Lane Keeping Assist. Once enabled, the system works to center the minivan within its lane on the highway, and also to warn of potential drifting or lane departures on local roads. I’ve made a habit of switching the feature on every time I start the car, rather than using it only when I’ve enabled adaptive cruise control. In some cars, lateral control systems switch on automatically when you enable adaptive cruise control.
Because these systems rely on your car being able to see lane markers, they work best on well-maintained highways where lane markers are clear and comply with modern standards. They tend to work less well when it’s raining, if the road is covered in snow or leaves, in construction zones, or in any other situations where lane markers are degraded or covered up. That means lateral control systems are ideal for tasks like commuting on a major highway, but work less well on local roads or poorly maintained rural roads, or in bad weather.
There are also times where it’s not ideal to be centered in your lane, like when you’re overtaking a motorcycle or cyclist. In most cars, a hard turn of the wheel will automatically disengage lateral control systems, allowing you to manually move to the side of your lane. Using your turn signal also temporarily disables the systems in many cases, including in my Odyssey.
Once you’ve enabled emergency braking and switched on both longitudinal control (“adaptive cruise control”) and lateral control (“lane following assist”), you’ve essentially matched the Level Two self-driving capabilities of a Tesla on Autopilot. Tesla adds some fancy bells and whistles like auto-lane-changing and speed limit detection, but if you have longitudinal and lateral control automated — and can stop suddenly in the event of an emergency — you’re at Level Two. Pat yourself on the back (once you stop driving)!
When are today’s self-driving capabilities most useful? I find that my Odyssey’s systems work well when I’m on a relatively long, straight road with light traffic. During rush hour coming out of San Francisco on Highway 24, using adaptive cruise control results in too much speeding up and slowing down. But the systems are much more helpful when I’m driving the long stretch of Highway 680 between Dublin and Mountain View, which is monotonous but tends to have fairly light traffic and consistent lane markings.
Where today’s self-driving systems really shine, though, is on long drives. I used my Odyssey’s systems while driving down Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Los Angeles over the Summer of 2020. They made the six-plus hour trek much easier. On the lightly trafficked Interstate 5, I could cruise for 20–30 miles at a time with my hands lightly resting on the wheel, the Odyssey automatically maintaining its speed and automatically steering to follow the road’s long, sweeping curves. Although I always kept my eyes on the road, letting my minivan handle the mundane tasks of maintaining speed and road positioning made the drive much less draining.
What’s next for self-driving cars? The leap from Level Two to Level Three is a major one. It’s often referred to as “eyes off” — a point where you can safely look away from the road for a moment. At Level Four, cars reach “mind off” where you can zone out entirely and focus on something else while your car hurdles along the road. And again, at Level Five, you don’t even need to be in the car at all. Honda recently released a Level Three vehicle in Japan, so it’s likely that Level Three self-driving will reach America in the next few years. Several companies are working on skipping to full Level Five capabilities, too, so it’s possible that true self-driving cars could arrive sooner than we expect.
In the meantime, though, if you have a modern car, you don’t have to wait to make use of self-driving capabilities right now. You don’t even have to buy a Tesla. Research the longitudinal control, lateral control, and emergency braking systems that your car may already include, and learn to use them effectively (always be ready to take over control in an emergency, of course). You’ll have achieved Level Two self-driving, even if you drive a minivan. You can laugh all the way to the soccer field.