How Do Tesla Cars Drive Themselves?

how does tesla autopilot work

The wave of futuristic cars has begun with the creation of the Tesla self-driving car. They are true pieces of technological wonder and show just how far humanity has come to achieving the futuristic world spoken of in science fiction. So, exactly do Tesla cars drive themselves? 

Tesla cars drive themselves through a complicated system of artificial intelligence, software, and a network of cameras that allow them to see and understand what is around them. They cannot fully drive themselves currently, but they are on the brink of reaching that potential.

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about how Tesla cars drive themselves, the artificial intelligence that keeps them operating, and how the technology will soon be perfected.

Tesla Cars’ Autopilot Mode

Tesla cars come equipped with an autopilot feature. This feature allows Teslas to drive themselves under certain conditions. This is the feature most people think of when they imagine Tesla’s self-driving abilities. While it is capable of quite a bit, some limitations still exist.

The Tesla car and its autopilot have some wonderful capabilities. The autopilot comes equipped with all the necessary hardware and software for future updates that will allow Tesla cars to fully drive themselves when that technology is finally made available to Tesla owners. 

Autopilot essentially allows your car to drive you to any place that you so desire, but it only has the ability to drive itself in its current lane. If you need to switch lanes or something similar, you will need to do that yourself. This, however, is not a major limitation and will only affect you ever so often, rather than affecting you all the time.

Tesla’s autopilot allows the vehicle to steer, accelerate, and brake automatically in its current lane. This can vastly decrease the need for you to focus on the annoying aspects of driving. Even though the Tesla can not drive itself by switching lanes or making turns, it can take control of those drives that require a single-lane route. 

Teslas Can Drive, But Not Autonomously 

While Teslas have a lot of impressive capabilities, they are not quite able to autonomously drive themselves without driver intervention. There are still a fair amount of limitations, but the company is constantly working on improving these limitations to make the cars fully self-driving and autonomous.

Some of Teslas’ current self-driving limitations include:

  • Requiring the attention of human drivers when they are in self-drive mode
  • Requiring the human driver to touch the wheel periodically
  • Requiring the human driver to take control in the event of something unexpected

Tesla cars still require the attention of a human driver when they are in self-drive mode. This is because Tesla cars are not yet fully autonomous and need a human driver to ensure that the car’s passengers stay safe if something unexpected happens. A Tesla car is not yet able to make adequate split-second decisions.

The human driver must let the car know that they are still there by touching the wheel periodically. It does not have to be a heavy touch or turn of the wheel, but drivers must touch the wheel every once in a while, or the car will drop out of self-driving mode. 

Tesla’s Autopilot Mode Versus Fully Self-Driving Cars

Tesla offers its customers two different self-driving packages. The two packages include different levels of self-driving capabilities. Drivers can decide how much control their cars have. 

Regardless of if you get a Tesla with the basic autopilot mode or the full current self-driving functionality, you still have to remain with the vehicle with your hands on the wheel. This helps keep you and your passengers safe since the self-driving technology has not reached full autonomy yet.

Always use your common sense and follow the traffic laws that exist when your Tesla is on autopilot or in self-driving mode. Having a car that can drive itself does not excuse you from remaining attentive and observant of what is currently happening around you. Remember, the car is not fully autonomous, and you should not treat it as such. 

Tesla’s Camera System

Tesla cars all come equipped with a large assortment of cameras that are used when the car is driving itself, with either autopilot or full self-driving. These cameras form a large portion of the Tesla car’s self-driving capabilities. Tesla cars use these cameras to observe what is happening around them at all times. 

If you have a Tesla, your car is equipped with more than eight cameras that face in all directions and continually feed data and information to your car’s system. This system is equipped with some of the most powerful processors that exist. They are 40 times more powerful than Tesla’s previous processors, which is already a huge step towards getting Teslas to fully autonomous status.

Alongside these cameras is a system of ultrasonic sensors and radar that ensure the Tesla has no blind spots anywhere as it is driving. Without these cameras, sensors, and radar, even the most basic of the Tesla autopilot features would not be able to work. 

Front Forward-Facing Cameras

The first system of cameras that Tesla cars employ are the front forward-facing cameras. These cameras have different sight levels and are angled differently, giving them complete and total coverage of everything in front of your car. They are located behind your windshield.

  • A wide-vision camera with a 120-degree lens capable of capturing traffic lights, and obstacles ahead
  • Main camera with a range of 150 meters ahead for general purpose
  • Narrow front camera with a range of 250 meters to watch what is approaching from the front

The wide-vision camera is most useful when driving in urban settings. The main camera is great for scoping out obstacles in the distance. The narrow front camera is useful in high-speed situations, like on a highway, when obstacles may approach at high speeds from a distance. 

Frontward-Facing Side Cameras 

The next system of cameras that exist on the Tesla is the frontward-facing side cameras. These cameras can sometimes appear redundant since some of their coverage is the same as the wide front camera, but the side cameras serve an important purpose.  

The Tesla side cameras come equipped with a 90-degree view that allows them to cover all of your front angles when driving. These cameras are used by your Tesla to check for cars that may be unexpectedly entering your lane and provide extra visibility when driving in areas of low visibility. 

These cameras are essential for negating any blind spots. The front cameras cannot capture cars or other dangers that approach from certain angles, so these frontward-facing side cameras ensure you are protected from any unexpected intrusions.

Rear Cameras

The final system of cameras that come equipped on your Tesla is the rear cameras. These cameras help the car check to see what is behind it at any time. They help keep you safe while driving. There are two sets of rear-facing cameras: the side-facing rear cameras and the main rear-facing camera.

  • Side-facing rear cameras help drivers safely merge into traffic and change lanes
  • Main rear-facing camera helps drivers back up safely and eliminates blind spots

The side-facing rear cameras protect drivers from collisions on either side of the rear of their Teslas by seeing any obstacles in these areas. This means that lane changes and merges are always safe and smooth.

The main rear-facing camera allows the Tesla to back up safely without colliding with another vehicle or person. It also allows for complicated parking maneuvers like parallel parking. Parallel parking in a tight spot can be quite difficult, but this camera is especially helpful in ensuring no damage occurs while performing this move.

Tesla’s Radar Capabilities

The next unique part of the Tesla camera system is the radar that it uses. This radar is focused towards the front of the car and provides an extra safety layer when driving. The car uses this when you are driving in less than optimal conditions to help keep you safer when driving in bad weather. 

The radar sends a wavelength that stretches out in front of your car for a short distance ahead of you. This wavelength is capable of going through fog, snow, dust, rain, and most impressively, under other cars. This allows you and the car to respond to any objects in front of the vehicle that neither you nor the standard cameras can detect. 

Tesla’s Ultrasonic Sensors

The final piece of the Tesla camera system is the ultrasonic system that all Teslas come equipped with. These sensors provide coverage all-around your entire vehicle, effectively removing all blind spots that could have possibly been left by both the cameras and the radar. This is the third level of protection. 

These sensors double the range of your car’s visibility by using uniquely coded sensors. You will find that these sensors come in handy when detecting nearby cars. The sensors also provide you with guidance when you are trying to park your Tesla. 

Tesla Vision And How It Works

The Tesla would not be able to function in the incredible, high-tech way that it does if not for Tesla Vision. Tesla Vision was created to handle all the data constantly gathered by the large Tesla camera system.

  • The entire Tesla Vision system is built upon a neural network used to handle the large amounts of data picked up every second.
  • This neural network is unlike those that have come before it in regards to visual data processing—it is a revolutionary technology.
  • Tesla Vision can quickly and efficiently break down the environment surrounding the Tesla.
  • No other visual data processing software that has been seen in the past can even come close to the speed and capabilities of Tesla Vision. 

Tesla’s Processing Power

Alongside the neural network of Tesla Vision is all the software that goes into the successful self-driving capabilities of the Tesla car. Normal computer systems would not be capable of handling the sheer amount of data and calculations that the Tesla has to make every second. Thus, a small supercomputer is essentially inside every Tesla.

The onboard computer and software have 40 times the processing power that has been in previous versions of Tesla vehicles. The programming team at Tesla created software that is capable of handling not only the increased processing power required by advancements in the technology but also the huge increase of external data. 

The neural network that was created for the Tesla car is not only running the calculations and deciphering the visual data, but it is also handling all the sonar and radar data that is brought in by the sensors and radar. 

This system works in tandem with the other components to form a picture of the world that no human driver can create with their five human senses. The processing system does this through the large amounts of visual, sonar, and radar data which incorporates wavelengths that no human can detect without the usage of such technology. 

The Tesla Neural Network

The neural network used by self-driving Tesla cars is one of the most advanced in its field and was developed by Tesla specifically for their self-driving vehicles. Unlike some visual data processing neural networks, the Tesla neural network analyzes data from live video data from each of the cameras that surround each Tesla vehicle.

It is constantly taking data concerning how the road is set up, objects that are nearby the vehicle, other vehicles to the front, rear, and side of the Tesla, and anything else that falls into the range of its cameras. This is done from a top-down view and then recreated by the computer into live 3D models that the car uses to drive safely. 

Tesla trains its neural network with actual test data that the vehicles gather from test drives. The data from these test drives is then logged by these vehicles and then uploaded into their systems. The networks are trained on some of the most diverse situations that can occur in a driving scenario. 

A complete autopilot neural network consists of 48 separate neural networks that take over 70,000 GPU hours to fully train. These neural networks are far from being undertrained and have more training hours than most human drivers will get in their entire lifetime. This makes the Tesla neural network one of the best out there. 

Navigation with Fully Self-Driving Tesla Cars

Not only does Tesla offer the basic autopilot system for their vehicles, but you can also choose vehicles that have the full self-driving system equipped. These systems come with more features, some of which are beta features still being worked on. Take caution when using these systems since the company is still working on perfecting them.

Some things to keep in mind when driving with a fully self-driving system are:

  • Even though the system is self-driving, it is not fully autonomous. Always remain attentive when driving, even when you have the system turned on. This will help keep you and any passengers safe as you ride. 
  • Do not put all your trust in the self-driving system and its computer. It is still capable of making mistakes at times as it is not a perfect system. Use your common sense when driving with the self-driving system as you would when driving normally. 

Going Home Or Traveling to a Destination

Tesla vehicles come with a feature where you can quickly and easily program the car to either take you back home or to any destination of your choosing. This works through the car’s built-in GPS, available in all Tesla vehicles. You can even connect your calendar to the car to access destinations stored within it to feed to the car’s GPS.

If you start at your home, you can have your vehicle take you to any place you want, simply by telling it your destination. If you do not specify a destination that you wish to go to, the vehicle will look at your calendar and then take you to a location-based on that if you want it to.

Your vehicle will figure out the best route for it to take and will be able to navigate its way through various driving scenarios. Whether it takes you through a busy urban setting or a complex system of highways, it will get you to your destination safely and as quickly as possible. 

Once you arrive at your destination, all you have to do is get out, and your vehicle will find a place to park itself while it awaits your return. You may think that it would be difficult to find your vehicle after this, but Tesla has included something known as Smart Summon for your vehicle, which, at the push of the button, returns your vehicle to you.

Tesla Smart Summon

If you get the full self-driving package, your Tesla car will come equipped with two modes of summoning. There is your normal summon, which has more basic capabilities, and then Smart Summon, which is where the summoning system for Tesla cars begins to stand out. 

The basic summon for your Tesla car will allow you to summon your vehicle back to you from wherever it is currently parked. However, it is only useful for a short distance as the regular summon only allows for the car to maneuver in and out of a tight space on its own. 

The Smart Summon is what you will use in parking lots and other similar, more complicated scenarios. The Smart Summon allows your car to maneuver through a crowded parking lot, move around obstacles that may be in its path, and locate you within the vicinity.

Both of these systems will make your life so much easier on shopping trips and excursions, as you will no longer have to worry about forgetting where you parked. All it takes is the push of a button, and your vehicle will navigate the parking lot and come to you without you expending any effort at all. Plus, you will not have to carry heavy bags.

Navigate on Autopilot

One of the beta systems that exists for Tesla cars that helps them drive themselves is the autopilot navigation system. It is not as highly advanced as some of the other systems you can find on your Tesla, but it is still a very useful option when driving with a Tesla self-driving car.

The navigation autopilot system can:

  • Guide your vehicle onto ramps and off of them, making those changes between traffic lanes easier on you as the driver
  • Give you suggestions for lane changes and other driving matters to help with the driving experience
  • Engage the turn signal for you automatically and take the correct exit, so you no longer have to worry about missing your exit

Tesla’s Autosteer System

Autosteer is another useful system that Tesla cars employ to drive themselves well and safely. However, this does require you to take an active role. You must constantly let the car know that you are still in the vehicle and are paying attention to what is going on. The Autosteer system is no more autonomous than any other feature of the Tesla. 

You will need to keep your hands on the steering wheel and apply enough pressure to the wheel. That way, your car knows you are still actively engaged. If the car does not sense your hands, it will give you audio and visual cues to put your hands on the wheel. If you ignore these, the car will automatically turn off the Autosteer. 

The Autosteer system allows the Tesla car to steer within a well-marked traffic lane, so this system is only suitable for urban settings or places where the roads are well-tended. You should not be using Autosteer with your Tesla if you are out in the country as your Tesla will not steer well if the traffic lanes are not well marked. 

When your Tesla uses the Autosteer system, it will also be using cruise control and will be using its cameras and sensors to remain aware of any traffic around you. This does not mean that you can let your attention wander from what is going on, as that could lead to you becoming injured if something goes wrong. 

Recognizing Stop Signs And Traffic Lights

Another beta system of Tesla cars is the system used to recognize stop signs and traffic lights. It has a fairly high success rate, but you should still be paying attention to ensure that your vehicle uses this system the way it is meant to be used and you stay safe. You should not have any problems with the system, though, overall.

Since this is a beta system for Tesla, you will need to activate this system yourself. It can be found by going from your controls setting to the autopilot settings. From there, you will be able to activate the stop sign and traffic light detection system and use it from now on when your car is driving. 

The way that this system works is that by using its cameras, it can detect and recognize traffic lights and stop signs. Once it has detected them, your Tesla will begin to slow itself down and stop at the stop sign or traffic light. Remember, you must still be paying attention when your Tesla is using this system as it is still a beta system. 

Autolane and Autopark Systems 

Autolane and Autopark are two systems that you can use in tandem with the Autosteer system to help make the driving experience easier on you. You can choose to have either one of these systems on or off alongside Autosteer.

  • Autolane is used to help you change your lane when you are using the Autosteer system. 
  • Autopark is used to help you when you are trying to park your Tesla. 

Autolane uses the cameras that come with your Tesla to check all around you and make sure that it is safe for your Tesla to turn over into the new lane as you are driving.

With Autopark, all you have to do is push a single button, and your Tesla will deal with all the troublesome work that comes from trying to parallel or perpendicular park. You should still be actively observing, however, to ensure your car does not accidentally hit another.

Both of these systems can only be used when you already have the autosteer system activated for your vehicle. It can decrease the use of these systems sometimes, but there are many times that you will find yourself glad that you have them. Just remember to be paying active attention when you are using either of these systems. 


Getting a Tesla can be an exciting thing, especially when it comes equipped with self-driving capabilities. They are complex pieces of software, hardware, and AI that can seem extremely confusing to understand at first, but once you take the time to research them and see how they work, they are truly astonishing. 

Your life is going to be a lot easier, even if the self-driving features are not fully autonomous yet. With the rate that Tesla advances, fully autonomous self-driving Teslas could be just around the corner.