CA to restrict use of term Autopilot: Tesla-owning pilot weighs in

A recent news item from California aimed directly at Tesla’s Autopilot system has me musing on words, meanings, and life and death.

Last week, that state’s Department of Motor Vehicles published the draft of a proposed new regulation that  “…prohibits the advertisement of lower levels of automated systems, where the human driver is still responsible for monitoring or control of the vehicle, as ‘autonomous,’ ‘self-driving,’ or other similar terms.”

The word “auto-pilot” is then cited as a word that could “induce a reasonable person to believe a vehicle is autonomous….”

Autopilot, of course, comes from the aviation world. But does the Autopilot system from Tesla Motors perform anything like the autopilots in aircraft?

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As both a Tesla Model S owner and a former private pilot, I’ve used both.

In my experience, the two systems play vastly different roles in a pilot/driver’s interaction with his vehicle.

Tesla Autopilot suite of features - with version 7.0 update

Tesla Autopilot suite of features – with version 7.0 update

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Plane vs car

Any Tesla driver who thinks his “Autopilot” performs anything like an aircraft autopilot will be sadly mistaken.

Surprisingly, the Federal Aviation Administration’s autopilot regulations, as quoted by Electrek, sound a lot like Tesla’s official admonitions about its earthbound Autopilot. 

Says the FAA: “While the autopilot relieves you from manually manipulating the flight controls, you must maintain vigilance over the system to ensure that it performs the intended functions and the aircraft remains within acceptable parameters of altitudes, airspeeds, and airspace limits.”

Tesla, in the dashboard alert it flashes to drivers who turn on Autopilot, warns, “…you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle…Be prepared to take over at any time.”

But there the similarity ends.

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Based on my experience, airplane autopilots are far more reliable and effective than their Tesla cousins.

In fact, it’s not even close.

And because there’s so little to run into up in the skies, the consequences of momentary pilot inattention are actually far less dangerous than on a highway.

So I’d have to agree with the DMV. Using the word “Autopilot” to describe Tesla’s driver-assistance features may very well contribute to the false sense of security that apparently triggered at least two fatal Tesla accidents.

Tesla Model S on Australia's Northwest Coastal Highway [photo: Robert & Robin]

Tesla Model S on Australia’s Northwest Coastal Highway [photo: Robert & Robin]

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Aircraft autopilot functions

The autopilots typically found in small private planes have a range of functions.

The most basic is a simple “wings-level” mode. Most autopilot-equipped small planes also have a heading-hold mode. Some have altitude hold and radio beacon tracking as well.

Small planes that fly in instrument conditions—in clouds or in visibility less than three miles—typically have at least a heading-hold autopilot.

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Flying a small plane in instrument conditions can be tricky. With no visual reference to the horizon, g-forces can make up feel like down—or sideways. 

Without an autopilot, a pilot must manually fly the plane by constantly scanning and cross-checking multiple instruments—artificial horizon, directional gyro, airspeed, altitude, and rate of climb. 

It’s a challenging task that requires absolute concentration, especially in turbulence. Over time, it can be exhausting.

Under these conditions, an autopilot is an absolute godsend, allowing the pilot to relax and focus on route planning, engine management, and so forth. For an instrument pilot, a good autopilot is a virtual necessity.

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