Whitney Tilson: My Experience With Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA) Autopilot

My Experience With Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) And Volvo’s Autopilot by Whitney Tilson


Both systems incorporate fantastic, cutting-edge technology.

The result is a much more relaxing driving experience and, when combined with numerous other technological safety features, a quantum leap in safety.

With Volvo, I felt a sense of excitement holding the future in my hands.

Two weeks ago I leased one of the first 2017 models of the Volvo (OTCPK:VOLVY) XC90 T8 Twin Engine Plug-in Hybrid SUV, replacing my 2008 model of the same car. My family and I love everything about our new car, but in light of the enormous publicity around Tesla’s (NASDAQ:TSLA) Autopilot system, which contributed to a driver’s death a few months ago (see this recent article in the New York Times, Tesla Faults Brakes, but Not Autopilot, in Fatal Crash), I wanted to focus in particular on Volvo’s version of Autopilot, which it calls Pilot Assist (PA).

The primary reason I didn’t buy the 2016 model of the XC90 is that Volvo substantially upgraded Pilot Assist in the 2017 model: it no longer requires a lead vehicle to follow and it works at speeds up to 87 mph (vs. only 30 mph previously). So it was with great anticipation that I put the new Pilot Assist through its paces the last two weekends, most notably on a long drive from New York City to my daughter’s camp in rural Maine, with roads ranging from unpaved to major interstates.

Overall, my verdict is highly favorable – I feel like I did when I was one of the first people to get a digital camera nearly two decades ago: it had plenty of bugs, but was still amazingly cool and I felt a sense of excitement holding the future in my hands.

The Pilot Assist system worked very well most of the time, making driving much more relaxing and safe (it saved us from two potential accidents, discussed below) – but one must have realistic expectations. Nether Tesla’s nor Volvo’s system is even close to the holy grail of being fully autonomous, in which a driver can program in the destination and then the car drives itself there, allowing (at least in theory) the driver to take a nap or read a book. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and others are investing billions of dollars in this area and, by all accounts, are making tremendous strides, but I suspect we are at least five and, more likely, 10 years away from the technology being able to provide the 99.999% accuracy that will be required before cars can truly become autonomous.

But let’s not let perfection be the enemy of the good: Pilot Assist was pretty darn impressive. On a normal road, with well-defined lane lines, especially when there was a car in front to follow, the car drove itself completely – I didn’t need to touch the gas pedal, brake or steering wheel (though the system required that I put my hand on the wheel every 15 seconds or it would turn off). PA didn’t work as well, however, when there was no lead car, and didn’t work at all on some back roads in Maine (mostly ones without side or center lines).

(My understanding, based on experience both driving and being a passenger in Model S and X Teslas and as well as reading reviews and having many conversations with Tesla owners (every last one of whom loves their car with a passion), is that Tesla’s Autopilot system, which the company updates regularly, is even better: it works on more types of roads, will switch lanes if you put on your blinker, and will park and summon your car even if you’re not in it. It also doesn’t require the driver’s hands on the wheel nearly as often – or perhaps at all (I don’t recall my friend touching the wheel for the better part of an hour as we cruised along an interstate.) I don’t think that this is a good idea, however, as it can lull the driver into a sense of complacency such that he/she completely stops paying attention, which can lead to accidents, so I think Tesla should tweak its software to require the driver’s hands on the wheel much more frequently.)

Though it has some limitations, I’m very satisfied with Volvo’s Pilot Assist system: we hit a lot of traffic in both directions to and from Maine, adding 60-90 minutes to what was already a long 5½-hour drive, and having PA greatly reduced the stress level of being in heavy traffic for extended periods: it kept the car from wandering outside the lane and maintained a safe distance from the car in front so I didn’t have to worry about rear-ending anyone, which is always a danger on a busy high-speed road (this latter feature is also true of Volvo’s Adaptive Cruise Control system (ACC), for those drivers (like my wife and daughter) who don’t like PA’s help with the steering).

Here’s another unexpected benefit of PA/ACC that I discovered: I used to always get irritated when a car in front of me was going slower than I wanted to go, so I’d try to maneuver around it (often passing on the right on a multi-lane highway) or pass it on the left (on a one-lane-in-each-direction road), which admittedly wasn’t always particularly safe and caused me (and sometimes my wife!) lots of stress. Now, I find that I’m usually content to simply set the PA/ACC to follow the car ahead of me and just relax and make a phone call or listen to music.

The car is loaded with all sorts of safety systems, most of which I hope never to have to use – but one, called City Safety, kicked in twice on our drive to Maine, saving us from two possible accidents. This system is always on, constantly monitoring all around the car and will warn you (and, if necessary, apply the brakes) if you’re turning into oncoming traffic or about to hit another vehicle, animal, bicyclist, pedestrian, etc.

In the first instance it kicked in, my wife was driving in heavy traffic outside of Boston at about 60 mph when the cars in front suddenly slowed to nearly a stop. Our car, detecting a possible collision, sounded a warning, tightened our seatbelts, and applied the brakes as my wife, as the same moment, applied them as well. It was pretty scary for an instant, but we stopped in plenty of time. We’ll never know how much braking the car did on its own vs. what my wife did – even had the car not braked automatically, I doubt there would have been a collision – but it’s sure nice to know that there’s a backup system to protect us (it also felt good when the seatbelts tightened).

A couple of hours later, the City Safety system saved my bacon in the last few seconds of our long trip. As I was turning left off the small road into the driveway entrance to my daughter’s camp, there was a car exiting. Since I had the right of way, the other car stopped and I turned. I pulled up next to the other car and tried to continue, but, alas,