How Does Tesla Autopilot Work?

Man in self-driving Tesla car on the highway or interstate

Since their launch in 2003, Tesla has produced millions of electric vehicles. Increased awareness about climate change and concern for the environment has fueled Tesla’s growth. Tesla has sold more electric vehicles than any other electric car manufacturer. 

Today, the company strives to lead the way with self-driving cars. Self-driving vehicles, called autonomous cars, perform some or all driving functions. The Tesla self-driving system, called Autopilot, was launched in 2014. While many are eager to embrace new technology, some are hesitant. Before investing in a Tesla car with Autopilot, it’s crucial to learn about how it works and the legal implications if you’re in an accident when it is engaged.

What is Tesla autopilot?

Tesla Autopilot started as cameras, sensors, and software. The primary goal of the initial Autopilot system was to offer basic self-driving on highways. Although the name implies that the car can drive itself, the original system needed human interaction. Autopilot’s initial capabilities were limited to centering the vehicle in its lane and maintaining its distance from the vehicle it followed. To that end, Autopilot could adjust the steering and use the brakes.

Degrees of Autonomous Driving

You might be surprised to discover your vehicle offers some autonomous driving capabilities. Autonomous vehicles aren’t limited to full self-drive vehicles. The autonomous car scale encompasses all vehicles, with the scale indicating the degree of functions available.

Level Description Example of Autonomous Functions
0 Zero Autonomy All driving functions are performed manually.
1 Basic Assistance Limited technological assistance is offered to drivers, such as cruise control functions that maintain vehicle speed.
2 Partial Driving Automation The vehicle handles some basic functions, like changing vehicle speed and adjusting the steering, but it still needs a driver.
3 Conditional Automation A driver must be available to resume control if the advanced driving system (ADS) asks them to. Otherwise, the ADS handles all driving tasks. 
4 High Automation Under identified conditions, the ADS controls all driving functions.
5 Full Automation The ADS can perform all driving functions under any conditions.


Whether the driver can control a Full Automation vehicle depends upon the ADS features offered by the manufacturer. Level 4 and 5 autonomous cars are promoted as vehicles people can use to assume full responsibility while driving, allowing vehicle occupants to relax or engage in other activities while in transit.

Why do consumers want ADS?

Distracted driving is the most common reason for motor vehicle accidents (MVAs). Effective autonomous driving vehicles may maintain a level of vigilance that human drivers fail to achieve. Consequently, using a vehicle with ADS could reduce the number and severity of MVAs.

Consumers may also benefit from vehicles with Level 5 ADS because they could perform other tasks in transit. Those traveling for work can reduce their time on the road by sleeping or working en route, while those traveling for leisure can rest while traveling to their destination.

How good is Tesla Autopilot? 

Tesla Autopilot began as a Level 2 ADS. In 2020, the company introduced Teslas with full self-driving (FSD) functions. Although FDS performs additional functions and can operate in more environments, it still relies on input from a driver. The system’s price has risen but remains a Level 2 ADS

How to Use Tesla Autopilot 

Basic Autopilot systems operate on highways. The driver should ensure they’re in the right environment before engaging Autopilot. Engaging Autopilot on some models involved shifting the gear lever down. Drivers can activate Autopilot on other models, such as Model X, by pulling the cruise stalk towards themselves. In both cases, shifting the gear level or cruise stalk involved repeating the motion immediately to engage Autopilot. 

How safe is Tesla Autopilot?

People want to stay safe on the roads, so safety ratings are one of the primary things consumers consider when purchasing vehicles. With more companies investing in self-driving technology, it’s natural for consumers to wonder how self-driving vehicles affect their liability and whether they pose safety risks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that between July 2021 and May 2022, 69.6% of accidents with self-driving systems engaged involved Teslas. Although those statistics may seem alarming, it’s crucial to note that Tesla crash statistics are reported instantly, while other vehicle manufacturers don’t use real-time data. Consequently, updated reports could reduce Tesla’s percentage. Drivers should note that 392 accidents in 10.5 months is a relatively small number, considering there were more than 400,000 vehicle crashes in Florida in 2021. 

Who’s liable for accidents involving ADS? 

The law can take time to catch up to new technology, so it’s a good idea to consult a car accident attorney before purchasing a self-driving car. Your car accident lawyer can explain your liability if an accident occurs when you’re using Autopilot. 

Car accident attorneys are familiar with changes to transportation laws and ongoing litigation that could impact drivers. Tesla is currently under criminal investigation. Drivers can file lawsuits against Tesla for accidents occurring when Autopilot is engaged, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation could pave the way for more lawsuits.

Anyone involved in an accident with a car using Tesla Autopilot should contact an experienced car accident lawyer who can review their case and explain their legal rights. Your legal team will explain your rights and potential liability if your vehicle caused the accident. If another driver’s self-driving vehicle is at fault, your attorney will determine whether you can take legal action against the driver and vehicle manufacturer. Understanding your legal rights ensures you can take appropriate legal action before the statute of limitations expires. 


EV Sales by Country 2022. (2022).

Ramey, J. (2022). Tesla FSD is now $15K, but is it any closer to Level 3?

Specter, M. et al. (2022). Tesla faces U.S. criminal probe over self-driving claims

Teslas account for 273 of nearly 400 U.S. crashes involving driver-assist systems. (2022).

The information contained herein is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.

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