Does Tesla’s Autopilot Failure Make You Afraid to Try a Self Driving Car?

Self Driving Car

Not me. After trying out self driving features in the Volvo XC90, here’s why.

The news about Tesla’s Autopilot feature has been dire lately, including the sad death of a Tesla driver while using it on a Florida highway.

Tesla and other automakers have pushed the technology—which is a series of interconnected systems, not a single function—because ultimately, it will make our roads safer and driving more pleasant. But with setbacks like these, the industry is going to be more closely watched and consumers will likely buy in more slowly.

 But should we still use the best parts of self driving technology? We think so. Here’s why.

Cameras, cameras everywhere: How Volvo is your co-pilot

How A Self Driving Car Functions

Cameras on the Volvo XC90 create a 360 degree view, which helps you to park and the car to drive. Photo Scotty Reiss

The key to any autopilot system is the suite of autonomous features that work together to keep the car safe on the road. These systems are fueled by a series of cameras, radars and sensors that are tucked into the top of the windshield, the front grille, the front and side bumper, under the side view mirrors and on the rear liftgate. They monitor traffic, pedestrians and objects on all sides of the car, traffic in the distance, road markings and signs.

A good autonomous system also has parameters that when not met, such as a lack of lines on the road or a lead car, prevents the system from taking over, thus making you do the driving.

I got to experience many of these in the 2016 Volvo XC90. Here are the features—some you know and some you might not— that could potentially drive the car autonomously, but each also provides valuable assistance and helps you stay safer, more alert and relaxed.

Pilot Assist: The car takes over in stop-and-go-traffic; just don’t take your hands off the wheel

How A Self Driving Car Functions

The Volvo’s Pilot Assist message lights up when the system is in use. Photo: Estee Reiss

This might be my favorite feature in the Volvo XC90 so I’ll start here. When traffic comes a crawl, simply push the cruise control button on the steering wheel and scroll right for Pilot Assist. The system only operates at speeds under 30 miles an hour, slowing down and speeding up with the flow of traffic. It follows the vehicle ahead of you (it won’t work without a lead vehicle and will signal you when it can’t detect one) and monitors traffic around you.

It also uses the lane keep assist function to keep you in your lane. It worked smoothly and perfectly, and I never felt like the car “slammed” on the brakes, though I’ll admit, I was nervous the first few times the Volvo slowed and stopped in traffic, I was poised to hit the brakes myself (but didn’t have to). Pilot Assist often brought the car to a complete stop, and when traffic ahead of me started moving, the Volvo moved too. The lane keep assist worked so well I didn’t feel the need to keep my hands on the wheel, but the car disagreed, flashing an “assist steering” prompt on the dashboard when it sensed I’d had my hands off the wheel for too long.

Adaptive cruise control: Let the car handle the ebb and flow of traffic for you

How A Self Driving Car Functions

The head up display shows not only the speed we were going but also, the speed set for adaptive cruise. Photo: Estee Reiss

Adaptive cruise can be set at speeds higher than 30 miles per hour, but it would not take over when Pilot Assist could no longer regulate my speed; it had to be set on its own. The car gave me a message that Pilot Assist was no longer available, so I clicked the cruise button and set adaptive cruise (there is no regular cruise option). If I had started off in normally flowing traffic, adaptive cruise would have been my first choice; it works at low speeds in heavy traffic as well, so if you’ve set it, it will deal with traffic that slows to a crawl on the highway.

Minding the gap: Setting the distance between you and traffic ahead

How A Self Driving Car Functions

Buttons on the steering wheel allow you to set cruise control, pilot assist and the gap distance

There’s an indicator on the driver information screen just to the right of the adaptive cruise/Pilot Assist indicator that lets you set your comfort level for following traffic: Gap adjustment. You can set the distance between you and the vehicle ahead by tapping the arrow buttons to the right of the cruise control setting, and the system gives you several distance choices. This setting is as much about comfort as safety: setting too narrow a gap can leave you feeling as if the car is slamming on the brakes, while too large a gap invites other drivers to hop in front of you.

Merge assist: Monitoring traffic around you for safe merging

When using adaptive cruise control, the system is constantly monitoring traffic around you. Put your signal on to merge to the next lane, and the car automatically slows to position you for a safe merge.

Blind Spot Monitors: Keeping tabs on other drivers (and objects)

How A Self Driving Car Functions

The blind spot monitors in the Volvo XC90 employ systems that also help to guide Pilot Assist and merge assist. Photo: Estee Reiss

This isn’t the newest innovation but it’s a key one that helps the car to know what’s going on around you without you having to take your eyes off the road. The system’s cameras and sensors aid many of the other functions like merge assist and adaptive cruise.

Lane Keep Assist: Keeping you in line, and letting you know when to take over

How A Self Driving Car Functions

Another safeguard in the Volvo XC90: the car reads road and lane markings; here it let me know that Pilot Assist was not available because it couldn’t detect the road’s lanes. Photo: Scotty Reiss

One feature I found hugely valuable was the lane keep assist function. In general, it warns you if you’re drifting out of your lane and nudges you back in if you do. It doesn’t work, however, if it can’t detect lines, and it’s not highly functional at high speeds (so it won’t guide you around curves at high speed).

Road Sign Reader: Watching the speed limit for you

I love a system that displays local speed limits on the speedometer and the navigation screen, even if sometimes the reported speed is not entirely accurate. Most systems detect speed limits based on GPS maps, but the Volvo system actually reads the signs along the road. It’s also programmed to read other signs (but it only displays speed limit for now). As this technology develops it will help the car to know when it needs to slow down, speed up, merge or other functions.

Park in/Park Out: Auto parking for parallel and perpendicular parking

Don’t feel like straining to see the corners of your car and the curb when parallel parking? Let Volvo do the work. We didn’t try this out in the XC90 but we’ve done it before; in general, when you want to use it, push the button, put on your turn signal and then follow the car’s prompts; you control the braking and acceleration, the car controls finding a spot and steering into it. The system will also perpendicular park the car, but backs into the space rather than pulling in forward.

In all, I found each of these features to be highly valuable and look forward to the day when they take over much of the driving for me. And I really like that it insists I keep my hands on the wheel.

Note: Any images that show the Volvo operating at more than zero miles per hour were taken by Estee Reiss safely from the backseat. We do not snap photos while driving, even if the car is doing most of the driving.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss