Tesla Model S autopilot put to the test

SAN MATEO COUNTY (KTVU) -- Tesla has been in the headlines recently after a driver in Florida was killed when the vehicle, reportedly operating on auto pilot, crashed into a tractor trailer.

KTVU recently took a test drive of a white Tesla Model S on the winding roads in San Mateo County. Tesla representative Alexis Georgeson rode shotgun and explained the features on the northbound drive on I-280 toward San Mateo.

The car’s autopilot system is activated just like the cruise control on other vehicles.

When the driver pulls the selector twice, the system is engaged. A dashboard message flashes, warning the driver to keep their hands on the steering wheel.

The car’s autopilot utilizes a series of sensors and a forward-mounted camera to keep track the road and surrounding traffic.

Said Georgeson:  The driver “should be active and aware and wanting to touch the wheel. That’s how it’s designed to be.”

An audible warning system sounds when the driver takes their hands off of the wheel for over a minute, and the car will slow itself before eventually coming to a complete stop.

“This is not a self-driving, driving car,” Georgeson said. “This is autopilot. It is a driver convenience feature similar to how there are other driver convenience features such as traffic aware and cruise control.”

The Tesla’s autopilot system has been under scrutiny recently.

In May, Joshua Brown was killed when his Model S, operating on autopilot, slammed into the side of a tractor-trailer as it turned in front of the car on a Florida highway. Officials have said the car’s sensors were apparently confused by the light colored truck against the bright sky.

Preliminary reports have indicated that Brown may have been driving while distracted and didn’t see the crash in time to brake.

Fred Barez, a San Jose State University mechanical engineer professor, said drivers should still be aware of what’s on the road even if a vehicle’s autopilot system has been activated.

“You need to be engaged and monitoring the whole path (while) driving,” he said.

Barez demonstrated with a toy remote control car how the vehicle’s signal would come from sensors in the front and go forward several car lengths to detect trouble. He suggests that a similar system on the Tesla would have prevented the crash in Florida.

Company officials say Tesla engineers regularly update the vehicles’ software through direct downloads into the vehicles. And they stand by the autopilot feature, adding that the autopilot system does not supplant a driver’s responsibility to stay aware.

Said Georgeson: “Autopilot is actually preventing accidents. This is designed specifically to create a safer way to drive cars.”

KTVU reporter Jesse Gary contributed to this report.