You could consider Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system a bold and revolutionary, if admittedly incomplete, step toward autonomous cars. Or you could think the company has no business giving it that name. Or that human beings are too irresponsible not to use it in exceedingly dumb ways. I actually think all of those things are true, as well as this: You should not buy or use the “Autopilot Buddy” device, ever.
Before I get into the Buddy, let me give you a quick primer on Autopilot. When activated it drives the Tesla at a set speed, keeps it in its lane even following through some curves, slows for traffic ahead of you and can make lane changes if you signal. But it requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel, and if you do not, it gives you a visual warning on the dashboard followed by an audible one. And if you really let it go too long, the car comes to a stop.
All of this is meant to keep drivers from being negligent idiots behind the wheel, and using Autopilot to kill themselves or someone else in new and exciting ways.
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But! What if you didn’t care about any of that, and you decide your individual right to use Autopilot however you please, and the safety of other motorists and pedestrians, trumps even how Tesla advises you to use it?
Enter the Autopilot Buddy, a $179 aftermarket piece of magnetic plastic that attaches to your Tesla steering wheel and fools the car into thinking hands are on it:
See? Put that on there and then do whatever you want in your Tesla. Take a nap. Smoke a bowl. Climb around the back seat. Watch some movies. You can never die, because you’re misusing the technology of the future!
I first learned of this from a CNET Roadshow story yesterday, and they were as aghast at this idea as I am. Of course, Autopilot Buddy’s own website includes the disclaimers you’d expect, like how you are responsible for the car, it’s not a “safety device”, how using it irresponsibly “may cause injury or death,” and my favorite of all, how it’s “designed for closed track use, not for use on public streets.” (Most importantly, by purchasing it you agree to hold the company harmless from any accidents that occur with the device.)
Yet how do you square that against the videos that show it being tested on public roads, or on the very text on that site that describes this as a “hack” that lets you “enjoy” Autopilot without being asked to pay attention:
Autosteer was first released to Telsa owners in Oct 2015. Since that time “updates” have slowly diminished the duration we can enjoy “autopilot” in our cars.
Reduced from thirty minutes to less than three minutes between nagging reminders. This reduction in the cars features made many owners upset.
Tesla owners were searching for ways to hack the autopilot or extend the autopilot features without voiding the warranty.
“Autopilot Buddy” allows early adopters to once again enjoy autopilot for longer durations, by reducing or turning off the autopilot check-in warning.
Note: When “Autopilot Buddy” is installed you the driver are in control and assume responsibility for the car.*
(I sent some questions to the company’s Gmail address and will update if I hear back.)
Look, you know how people are gonna use this, even with all the disclaimer language in the world. They will see it is a “hack” that lets them be even more lazy and inattentive behind the wheel, when Autopilot itself isn’t ready for that level of autonomy, and there is a good chance this could lead to more crashes. New technologies always have the potential to kill people in new ways, and intentionally negligent misuse is a great way to make that happen faster.
Recall that this device’s release comes at a time when Autopilot itself is under a great deal of scrutiny by the National Transportation Safety Board for various crashes, and that CEO Elon Musk seems perpetually on defense when it comes to the system’s safety record. I can’t imagine Tesla is too thrilled this thing exists. (A spokesperson for the automaker declined to comment to CNET.)
Anyway, this is a bad idea, you should not spend $179 on it, and if you do want to use it you’re a bad person. It’s probably only a matter of time before Tesla figures out a way to keep you from doing this anyway.