Engineers at Consumer Reports (CR) said this week they were able to “easily” trick Tesla’s Autopilot system into thinking someone was in the driver’s seat, meaning the car could be driven without anyone behind the wheel.
CR engineers performed the demonstration on a private road using a Tesla Model Y vehicle. The non-profit consumer organization said it decided to conduct the test after hearing about Saturday’s fatal crash in Spring, Texas, involving a Tesla Model S that apparently had no one behind the wheel.
Tesla’s Autopilot system, and also its recently released premium Full Self-Driving (FSD) mode, are driver-assist systems and do not offer fully autonomous driving. Tesla cautions drivers to always stay vigilant when their vehicle is in either of these modes.
CR engineers took the Model Y on several trips across the organization’s half-mile test track. They found that despite having no one behind the wheel, the vehicle failed to send out a warning or indicate in any way that the driver’s seat was empty. The team said it took a number of simple steps to trick Autopilot, which included placing a small weighted chain on the steering wheel to simulate the weight of a driver’s hand.
“In our evaluation, the system not only failed to make sure the driver was paying attention, but it also couldn’t tell if there was a driver there at all,” said Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing, who conducted the experiment.
Fisher added that he believed Tesla is “falling behind other automakers like GM and Ford that, on models with advanced driver assist systems, use technology to make sure the driver is looking at the road.”
Those systems use cameras to ensure someone is in the driver’s seat and monitoring the road ahead, while Tesla’s system uses a series of sensors designed to ensure, for example, that the driver has at least one hand on the wheel. If it fails to sense any hands on the wheel, Tesla’s system emits a series of audible warnings, which, if ignored, will result in the vehicle coming to a gradual halt. But a number of videos appearing on social media in recent years have, like CR’s test, shown that it’s possible to trick the system, enabling a Tesla to be driven without anyone behind the wheel.
On its website, Tesla tells its drivers to stay alert at all times, saying: “Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous,” and also: “While using Autopilot, it is your responsibility to stay alert, keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times, and maintain control of your car.”
Two men aged 59 and 69 died in last weekend’s Model S crash in Texas when the vehicle hit a tree and burst into flames. One of the occupants was found in the front passenger seat and the other in a rear seat. Investigators are still looking into the cause of the crash to determine if the Model S was in Autopilot mode when it left the road. There’s also the possibility that one of the occupants was thrown, or moved, from the driver’s seat around the point of impact.
Responding to the crash, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the vehicle data logs “recovered so far” showed that Autopilot was not enabled at the time of the accident, and that the car’s owner had not purchased FSD. Investigators are reportedly planning to serve search warrants on Tesla to obtain data from the crash.
California-based Tesla has been criticized in the past for the way it labels its driver-assist systems, which some have suggested could mislead drivers into thinking their Tesla is fully autonomous.
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