Tesla Autopilot continues to operate without anyone in the driver’s seat, Consumer Reports demonstrates

Tesla fell under renewed scrutiny again when a 2019 Model S struck a tree in Texas on April 17, killing the vehicle’s two occupants. According to authorities, neither of the men were behind the wheel of the car when the accident took place, which led some to believe that they were “testing” out the Autopilot feature that is standard on all Tesla models.

Since then, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have launched an investigation into the crash. On Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that data logs recovered from the crashed Model S revealed that the Autopilot was not enabled, refuting claims that the company’s driver-assistance system was involved in the crash.

He also noted that the crashed car did not have the Full Self-Driving (FSD) suite enabled, which requires a payment to access features such as Navigate on Autopilot, automatic lane changing, Autopark, Summon and others. Furthermore, the standard Autopilot would require clearly visible lane lines to be allowed to function, which the winding road in Spring, the site the accident occurred, did not have.

Tesla has made it clear that none of its cars are fully autonomous today and still require active driver suspension. This is despite the Autopilot and FSD system being marketed in a way that consumers believe otherwise, which is why you see plenty of videos of customers apparently falling asleep or trying out dangerous (and stupid) stunts with the systems active.

While the investigation into the fatal accident in Texas is ongoing, Consumer Reports (CR) decided to find out if it was possible to drive on Autopilot without anyone in the driver’s seat. This, in a way, is a recreated scenario where the two men were indeed toying with Autopilot while sitting anywhere else in the vehicle except behind the wheel.

In their experiment that involved a 2020 Model Y on a closed test track, Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing, sat in the driver’s seat on top of a buckled seat belt, while Kelly Funkhouser, CR’s programme manager for vehicle interface testing, sat in the rear seat.

With the car in motion, Fisher engaged Autopilot and set the speed dial to 0 mph, which brought the car to a complete stop. He then placed a small, weighted chain on the steering wheel to simulate the weight of a driver’s hand, before climbing over to the front passenger seat – opening any doors would disengage Autopilot.

While in the front passenger seat, Fisher then adjusted the speed dial and was able to accelerate the vehicle before bringing it to a stop again. “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 said.

“It was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards, which we proved were clearly insufficient,” he added. It’s certainly a little unsettling just how easy it is to “trick” the system, and you can watch the entire demonstration here.

Repeating what Tesla has mentioned before, CR stated that Autopilot is not perfect and truly self-driving cars do not yet exist for consumers to buy. “Autopilot makes mistakes, and when it encounters a situation that it cannot negotiate, it can immediately shut itself off. If the driver isn’t ready to react quickly, it can end in a crash,” he commented.

Funkhouser added that it might be possible to abuse the active driving assistance systems of other manufacturers’ cars in the same way if they lack technology that monitors whether a driver is present and paying attention. He also suggested that Tesla should use the weight sensor in the vehicle’s driver’s seat to determine if there is a human sitting behind the wheel in order for Autopilot to work.

Certain brands use camera-based systems that can track the movements of a driver’s eyes and/or head position to ensure that they are paying attention to the road as further safeguards. These driver monitoring systems are required for Europe’s Euro NCAP programme as of 2023.

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