Our Cars Are Trying to Keep Us Safe. Here’s How.

With eight cameras (and radar, GPS and ultrasonic sensors), Tesla obviously believes visuals like the signs and road stripes that signal humans are the best path to autonomy.

There’s also neural network training at work. Tesla gathers images of significant situations from owner’s cars (tricky intersections, cars with bicycles mounted on them, even vehicles that have rolled over) to continuously improve accuracy. And Tesla does not use lidar.

Andrej Karpathy, Tesla’s senior director of A.I. said he believes “lidar is a short cut that sidesteps the important and fundamental problem of necessary visual recognition that is important to autonomy. Lidar gives a false sense of progress and is ultimately a crutch.”

I spent an afternoon with Lori Howe, the president of the Tesla Owners Club Pacific Northwest, and her fiancé, Brian Manthos in a Tesla Model 3 Dual Motor Performance sedan. Autopilot requires that the driver’s hand is on the steering wheel, but Ms. Howe and Mr. Manthos agreed “it makes long road trips much more relaxing.”

The system is most impressive in Navigate on Autopilot mode. Enter a destination, and it takes on ramps and merges onto the highway. If traffic is bogged down, it can change lanes automatically. It takes off ramps while warning drivers the handoff from computer to human is about to happen. The menu is used to select how closely the car paces traffic ahead or how aggressive lane changes will be, right up to Mad Max mode.

I experienced a few events where the car made some slightly surprising moves, like the steering wheel tugging to the left as if to make a lane change for no apparent reason. Over all, I felt more secure using the hands-free Super Cruise, even though it lacks gee-whiz lane changing. But supposedly, the Tesla is always learning.

The jump to Levels Three, Four and Five in urban conditions is significantly trickier for computers to manage. And when Mr. Van Winkle wakes up behind the wheel, those systems will likely be attached to a luxury brand’s vehicle, because the tech won’t be cheap.

Smarter Driving is a new series all about how to buy, own, drive and maintain your car better. Have something you’d like us to cover? Reach out to the Smarter Driving’s editor, James Schembari, at jimschem@nytimes.com.


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