It started this past January with a tweet from Elon Musk: “No more stalks. [Cars guess their] drive direction based on what obstacles it sees, context & nav map. You can override on touchscreen.”
Along with the steering yoke and insanely fast acceleration of the new 2022 Tesla Model S Plaid EV, we’ve now had a chance to try Tesla’s predictive shifting, and we’re pleased to announce it works. Kind of. Most of the time. And when it doesn’t work, the car doesn’t seem to do anything dangerous, and it rarely does anything truly stupid.
What Tesla’s Predictive Shifting Does and Doesn’t Do
The system’s official name is Auto Shift Out of Park (Beta), and that’s an accurate description, as is Musk’s use of the word “guess.” The idea is that when you power-up the Tesla (there’s no ignition key or power button; you just step on the brake), the car will know whether to shift into forward or reverse for your departure. One automated direction choice is all you get, as once the car moves, direction choices are all down to you.
Letting the Model S Shift for Itself
Here’s how it goes, when it goes: Turn on the car, close your door, and fasten your seat belt (the 2022 Model S prompts you for the last two). If the car is able to predict a likely direction of travel, it prompts you to tap the brake pedal to select either Drive or Reverse. If the car can’t decide—or if the system is unavailable—it prompts you to shift for yourself on the touchscreen. The latter requires stepping on the brake and swiping the little car icon up or down, which is pretty slick itself.
We tried a variety of situations, including parking in stall spaces, parking with the nose or tail facing garages or walls or curbs, parallel parking with a car in front or a car in back, or just pulling over and stopping at the curb.
In about three-quarters of the scenarios we tested, Auto Shift worked as advertised: The Model S prompted us to engage the (correct) gear, asking us to confirm its choice with a brake-pedal tap. When the system didn’t work, it prompted us to choose our own direction using the touchscreen shifter.
When It Went Wrong, How Wrong Did It Go?
The system chose the wrong direction on three occasions. When we were parallel parked immediately behind one of the billion Toyota Camry’s on Los Angeles’ streets, the car wanted to select Drive. We gave it the requested brake-pedal tap, and the Tesla did indeed allow us to creep forward toward to the Camry. However, when we repeated the same scenario parked behind the Plaid’s smaller brother, a Tesla Model 3, the car correctly identified the need to back up.
In one of the parking lots, after successfully backing out of a spot against a wall, we stopped the car in the middle of the lot with nothing ahead or behind. We could have pulled forward, but Auto Shift prompted us to back up. Finally, as we backed into a spot, the car wanted to shift into Reverse—but as we paused to take a cell-phone photo, the Model S changed its mind and prompted us to select Drive.
Wrong, But Not Dangerously So
We should emphasize that at no time did the 2022 Tesla Model S Plaid attempt to move in the wrong direction (or the right one) on its own. The system prompts the driver about which gear it wants to select, but it will not actually do so unless the driver takes definitive action (tapping and releasing, not stepping on, the brake)—and even when we allowed the Model S to select the wrong gear, the car didn’t move until we stepped on the accelerator. In other words, there were no surprises—at least none which could have led to a collision.
Should the touchscreen crash or fail—a problem Tesla has learned the hard way is very possible, and for early Model S and X cars, all but guaranteed—an emergency touch-panel lights up at the base of the phone charger. This allows manual access to P, R, N, and D buttons. (With the hazard-switch factored in, it seems to spell out PRAND, which is our new derisive name for Tesla drivers who turn on Autopilot in the left lane and zone out while the rest of us pile up behind them. “Get out of my way, you prand!”)
Hiding From Our Own Car
Truth be told, getting the system to work exactly when we wanted it to was the biggest challenge. Documentation on the Auto Shift Out of Park feature in the Model S owner’s manual is pretty skinny, so we were left to guess about how to trigger the system. Auto Shift only seems to work once per drive; if we parked the car without shutting it down, we had to select our own gear.
In fact, we found the only way to use Auto Shift is to turn off the car, lock it, and move out of key-fob detection range. To an outsider, we must have looked like a pack of looneys—grown men hiding from a big blue car and asking each other, “Do you think it knows we’re here? Maybe we should move farther away so it thinks we’re gone.”
Is Auto Shift Out of Park a Worthwhile Function?
So, what do we think of Auto Shift Out of Park (Beta)? Well, as we said earlier, it’s the answer to a question nobody asked—but hey, we can’t be expected to come up with every question. Frankly, it’s a pretty cool feature, and Tesla seems to have set it up with enough safeguards to avoid disaster. (Thanks, we imagine, to much bad press about Tesla Autopilot crashes.)
At this point, many new cars have eliminated the need to manually turn on headlights, wipers or high-beams, so why should shifting into gear be any different? With a little refinement, Auto Shift Out of Park, like so much that exists in the Teslaverse, could—and perhaps should—be the wave of the future.
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