A month or so ago Tesla (the electric car company run by Elon Musk) launched its new Autopilot feature. Whilst it's still in beta mode and a long way from making its Model S – the flagship Tesla – completely autonomous, it does offer the first glimpse of what a consumer-available self-driving car is like. So I tested it. The idea is simple. And it works a little like cruise control – except Tesla's cruise control uses cameras to make it adaptive. What does that mean? Well, using the lever below the indicator, you set how many car lengths you want to be behind the car in front and set a speed. As the car in front slows down, so do you – according to they car length distance you've set. If it moves out of the way, you'll speed up to the speed you set until you meet another car in front.
Oh, and if the insane performance and awesome Autopilot system wasn't good enough, the new S also looks dynamite.
But where things get interesting is in the Autosteer feature. That's right, the Model S will steer itself. Combined with the Adaptive Cruise Control this means you can pretty much sit on a motorway (and this is designed for motorway driving only at the moment) without your hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals. And it works brilliantly. I drove a stretch of the M4 doing just exactly this. You're not actually supposed to take your hands off the wheel, but it works. At first I was terrified, but it soon became second nature – and made motorway driving less tiring. I'm not saying I took my focus away from the road – I didn't – but the car took control, going around bends and keeping me dead centre in the middle of the lane (it uses cameras to read the lane markings).
Core components of the Autopilot, such as Autosteer and Auto Lane Change, can be turned on and off through the dash.
But what about changing lanes? Well, the Tesla will do that for you as well. Pop your hands on the wheel in Autosteer mode, flick the indicator and the car will use its sensors to determine when it's safe to move into another lane – and then turn the wheel for you. It's bizarre.
A series of in-built cameras allow adaptive cruise control, with the distance between the S and the car in front selectable by the driver.
Oh, and did I say the car is capable of 0-60mph in 2.8 seconds (which well-and-truly pins you and your passengers back in their seat). And being all-electric, it hardly makes a sound. Sadly, I had to return the car – but if I have a spare £100,000 (although they do start at around £60k) I'll definitely buy one.