Alastair Dalton: We will have to get used to life on autopilot

Tesla Model S. Picture: PA
Tesla Model S. Picture: PA
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It is said to be the nearest available thing to a driverless car, and boy was it unnerving.

Not only is the Tesla Model S the current Rolls Royce of electric vehicles – so to speak – it also has an automated guidance system that gives you a hint of what’s ahead in motoring.

Just as well I didn’t check until afterwards that I was behind the wheel of a car that would leave you little change from £100,000.

After crawling through Edinburgh’s congested streets from Tesla’s city centre showroom in Multrees Walk, the car was literally to take on a life of its own on the A1 dual carriageway. It’s called Autopilot. You press a switch twice and the car surges up to the 70mph speed limit, while also staying a preset distance behind the vehicle in front.

However, indicate to pull out and the car will also make the manoeuvre for you, as it yanks the steering wheel to the right under your hands.

It will also keep the car within the lane, steer round corners and prevent you drifting off to the side.

The system can even be used to remotely move the vehicle out of your garage on to the driveway, via a smartphone app.

It’s not quite Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond steering his BMW round a multi-storey car park from the back seat in Tomorrow Never Dies.

But what wowed audiences nearly 20 years ago is decidedly no longer fiction.

This is significant because both autonomous vehicles and electric power – or at least non carbon-based fuel – are likely to play an increasing part in our lives.

Tesla, at the top end of the market, is still a niche player, but that could be about to change.

The Californian company won’t provide sales figures, or even give an indication of how its Edinburgh base – the first in Scotland – has fared since it opened in December. But to announce that a service centre will open in the capital this autumn suggests there’s already a healthy market. Expect showrooms in other cities like Aberdeen and Glasgow before too long. That could accompany the debut of a new Tesla model next year that has been forecast to revolutionise the electric car market, and even provide its “iPhone moment” – the equivalent of Apple’s innovation on mobile phones.

The Model 3 is expected to cost less than £30,000, with several hundred thousand eager buyers already putting down £750 deposits to join the queue. It also promises a range of more than 200 miles between charges, greater than many other electric cars.

Add to that the burgeoning number of charging points across Scotland, which, as The Scotsman has revealed, threatens to overtake the number of rural filling stations.

For autonomous cars, we may have to wait a little longer, especially as none of the forthcoming UK government trials will be in Scotland. However, the progress made by Tesla and several other manufacturers is likely to see many further incremental steps towards it.

Perhaps if I’d stayed in the Tesla on the A1 for a little longer, I would have become as relaxed with Autopilot as I am with my own car’s cruise control. After all, there’s a lot to be said for the view that computers are safer than humans, because they don’t get drunk, fall asleep or become distracted.

The Tesla gadget takes its name from a system that has been used to autonomously fly aircraft for decades. Those who travel in cars rather than planes may be about to catch up.