The self-driving Tesla: a review from a passenger’s perspective

The Tesla is a clever car with lots of gadgets, but it makes for an uncomfortable ride and can be dangerously stupid at times.

Tesla Model 3I had the opportunity to drive in a “self-driving” Tesla, an automatic system that is simultaneously impressive and awful. The Tesla Model S 75D is not a fully self-driving automobile. It does, however, have a few tricks. Thanks to sensors all around it, it can drive in a well-marked line without any participation from the driver, engage in responsive breaking and accelerating based upon the speed of the car in front, and change lanes if the driver uses the turn-signal.

At all times, though, the driver has to pay attention and be ready to take control. Thus, the Tesla needs human control if the car signals that it needs help, which might happen if the lane markings vanish, or if the driver is uncomfortable with the way in which the car is handling the situation.

The car really seems to hit its stride in slow, stop-and-go traffic. It will inch forward on the freeway without the driver having to accelerate and decelerate all the time. That’s certainly less stressful. Moreover, because the dynamics in stop-and-go are very, very slow, there’s little risk of the car making a poor choice about whether to accelerate or brake. My bet is that this function stops a lot of potential fender benders.

Things are less appealing at high speeds. The first problem is that, despite the car’s periodic reminder to the driver to pay attention, the reality is that, if people don’t have to pay attention, they won’t. This is especially true given all the things one can do with the giant computer screen. The driver can’t watch a movie, but he can constantly fuss with the interface in a way no sane driver who is solely responsible for the car’s behavior would ever do. In my little jaunt, the driver several times failed to help the car when the car needed help.

The second problem, and it’s a doozy from my perspective, is that the car is a rolling puke mobile. The word “puke” is not a typo.

Here’s the deal: A human driver, when staying within a lane, tries to use as few steering wheel adjustments as possible. That is, only a nervous beginner constantly turns the steering wheel a little this way and then a little that way. Anyone with experience goes for a smooth, linear approach that requires adjustments only when the car really come too close to a line on either side of the lane.

The Tesla, however, obsessively re-centers the car in the line, adjusting constantly. For those of us who get carsick, sitting in a car that endlessly swerves a little left and a little right is a nauseating experience.

A similar problem arises when the Tesla changes lanes. It’s definitely a good feature insofar as the Tesla’s myriad sensors will change lanes only when the lane is truly empty. There’s no blind spot problem here.

That being said, however, the Tesla doesn’t change lanes as a human would (at least under most circumstances) which entails a slightly long, smooth glide that has the car simultaneously move forwards and sideways. The Tesla has a different MO. It shoots over in as fast a lateral move as is possible while still driving forward. It then immediately begins its obsessive centering. Both these moves cause more of that sick-making wiggling.

I know that there are many claims that the Tesla saves lives. I get that. At intersections, for example, it scans all directions simultaneously, something a human cannot do. Even its life-saving computers, though, can be risky. A recent study revealed that even simple manipulations to street signs can completely, and dangerously, confuse automatic cars:

All it takes to confuse a driverless car are a few simple stickers on road signs.

That’s the conclusion of a worrying study that found autonomous vehicles can be easily confused into misreading road signs that would appear normal to human drivers.

Placing stickers or posters over part or all of a sign could be used to trick smart cars into ignoring stop sign or suddenly braking in the middle of the road.

In a way, it’s nice to know that human brains still have an advantage over those darn robots.

And of course, there remain my core problems with Tesla and other electric cars: (1) they’re unconscionable boondoggles for the rich, funded by direct taxes on the working classes and indirect, regressive taxes on the poor through high corporate and gas taxes; and (2) they’re environmentally abusive in a way that current cars, which use energy with amazing efficiency, are not. (You can read more of my hostile ruminations about Tesla here.) I might be somewhat reconciled to Tesla if Elon Musk would agree to turn the technology over to the public domain, seeing as the public funded it, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

I continue to think the Tesla is a hell of a car — and I don’t mean that in a good way.