Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty)

Car buyers have shown that they’re ready to embrace autonomous cars—but are automakers actually equipped to meet that demand? A new Consumer Reports article evaluating the viability of Tesla’s Autopilot software says that we’re... not quite there yet.

Tesla recently updated its Autopilot software to include Navigate, an optional program that uses the car’s software to calculate lane changes on the highway without any driver input. As the CR story notes, to use Navigate, a driver must turn it on and effectively give it permission to make its own lane changes.

It is an important step forward in the development of full autonomy, except it doesn’t work quite the way Tesla had planned.

The magazine was really not impressed. From the article:

In practice, we found that Navigate on Autopilot lagged far behind a human driver’s skill set: The feature cut off cars without leaving enough space and even passed other cars in ways that violate state laws, according to several law enforcement representatives CR interviewed for this report. As a result, the driver often had to prevent the system from making poor decisions.

“The system’s role should be to help the driver, but the way this technology is deployed, it’s the other way around,” says Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ senior director of auto testing. “It’s incredibly nearsighted. It doesn’t appear to react to brake lights or turn signals, it can’t anticipate what other drivers will do, and as a result, you constantly have to be one step ahead of it.”

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Drivers at CR who tested Navigate found that their Tesla was prone to making unsafe lane change maneuvers that a human would likely avoid—the car would pass on the right, for example, or cut in front of a car traveling at a much higher speed.

The system functions fine when it comes to the very basic principles of changing lanes, but it lacks the advanced situational awareness that humans have when it comes to making decisions based on, say, state laws or road etiquette, CR found.

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The whole article is worth your time, but if you want the quick and dirty verdict, here’s a quote from David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports:

Tesla is showing what not to do on the path toward self-driving cars: release increasingly automated driving systems that aren’t vetted properly. Before selling these systems, automakers should be required to give the public validated evidence of that system’s safety—backed by rigorous simulations, track testing, and the use of safety drivers in real-world conditions.

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And from Fisher:

This isn’t a convenience at all. Monitoring the system is much harder than just changing lanes yourself. Using the system is like monitoring a kid behind the wheel for the very first time. As any parent knows, it’s far more convenient and less stressful to simply drive yourself.

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The 59 percent of car buyers who are ready for autonomy are likely expecting the car to do all the work while they sit back and relax, possibly unaware that autonomy is measured in levels—and that the auto industry still hasn’t provided us with anything that could actually enable full autonomy.

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People want level 4 or 5—where the car can completely drive itself with little to no human intervention—but Tesla’s Autopilot feature is Level 2, with the human behind the wheel still needing to be fully alert and ready to take over at any time. That’s nowhere near the robot-controlled travel that is often associated with the word “autonomy.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk hasn’t really helped in this regard, making some pretty big claims about the future of its Autopilot mode. Musk has predicted Level 5 autonomy by 2020, but given the current state of Navigate, CR’s report suggests that Musk is far off the mark with that prediction. For now, Teslas may be partially autonomous, but they are by no means self-driving.

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I reached out to Tesla for a statement and will update this blog when we hear back.

This story has been updated to clarify that Navigate is an optional feature that must be turned on by the driver.