A fatal Tesla crash this weekend that involved an apparently driverless Model S has renewed safety questions about Tesla Autopilot, including whether there are enough safeguards to ensure drivers are paying attention while it’s engaged. Consumer Reports found this week that the answer is, uh, no.
CR set out to see if it could engage Autopilot, Tesla’s driver-assistance system, on its Model Y with no one in the driver’s seat. It successfully did so on the organization’s closed-course test track in Connecticut after easily bypassing the safeguards. From CR:
[Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing] engaged Autopilot while the car was in motion on the track, then set the speed dial (on the right spoke of the steering wheel) to zero, which brought the car to a complete stop. Fisher next placed a small, weighted chain on the steering wheel, to simulate the weight of a driver’s hand, and slid over into the front passenger seat without opening any of the vehicle’s doors, because that would disengage Autopilot. Using the same steering wheel dial, which controls multiple functions in addition to Autopilot’s speed, Fisher reached over and was able to accelerate the vehicle from a full stop. He stopped the vehicle by dialing the speed back down to zero.
“The car drove up and down the half-mile lane of our track, repeatedly, never noting that no one was in the driver’s seat, never noting that there was no one touching the steering wheel, never noting there was no weight on the seat,” Fisher says. “It was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards, which we proved were clearly insufficient.”
CR also did a short video of the test, while also being quick to urge you not to do this at home.
As CR notes, there are many things that Tesla could’ve done differently to make this impossible. Those measure would include adding a seat sensor or having a system like GM’s Super Cruise, which uses a dashboard camera to monitor the driver’s eyes, ensure that a person is paying attention to the road.
Tesla’s system, on the other hand, appears to make sure only that the driver’s seatbelt is connected, the doors are closed and that there is pressure on the steering wheel, whether that is from a human hand or not.
You might argue that anyone intentionally using Autopilot while not in the driver’s seat deserves whatever comes next, but the people that this driverless Tesla could crash into don’t. After all, Autopilot is imperfect. Further, the point of pretty much all car safety tech is to save people from themselves. If you ever see a driverless Tesla on the road, meanwhile, I’d recommend moving away quickly.