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Tesla’s Autopilot could save lives

If I had a rich aunt or uncle willing to spend big bucks on my holiday present, I’d ask for a Tesla Model S. It’s not because it can go from zero to 60 in almost no time, not because it’s a beautiful car, not because of the very cool electronic display and not even because it’s all electric. What makes me want a Tesla is its safety features, specifically its “autopilot” feature that almost lets it drive itself when you’re on a highway.

Unlike what Google is trying to accomplish with its autonomous vehicle program, the Tesla is not a self-driving car. In fact, the company had to notify drivers with this feature to remember that they are still responsible for the operation of the vehicle.

However, once the feature is engaged — if you’re on a freeway or major highway — the car pretty much drives itself until you’re ready to return to surface streets.

I experienced this recently when I drove a Model S with the latest software around Palo Alto and on Highway 280. When driving around town, it was pretty much like any other car except peppier than most. But when I got on Highway 280 and engaged the autopilot, it felt like I had a co-driver helping me out. The car literally steers itself on the highway and the cruise control keeps an eye on what’s ahead and either slows down or applies the brakes if necessary. As I approached cars in front of me, I kept looking over to the Tesla representative in the right front seat to see what I should do and he encouraged me to simply let the car do its thing — and I’m here to tell you that it did.

What really amazed me was the lane changing ability. To change lanes, you simply engage the turn signal and, if safe, the car almost instantly jogs to the left or right and scoots into the adjoining lane. What amazed me was how quickly it performed these maneuvers.

Usually before I change lanes, I check my mirrors and swivel my head around to see if it’s safe. If I have any doubts, I wait until I have a nice big opening.

Tesla’s autopilot has better vision than I do. Its cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors are already looking around and its software is able to make a quick decision as to when it’s safe to change lanes.

I’m a pretty good driver but — on highways — Tesla’s autopilot is a better driver. It’s not where Google wants to take us with self-driving cars, but it goes a long way toward making driving safer and more relaxing.

Unfortunately, I don’t have that rich relative or a big enough bank account to justify spending at least $70,000 or probably closer to $90,000 for the model I’d like to own. I am, however, looking forward to this technology coming soon to less expensive cars and ultimately to self-driving vehicles.