Why Tesla Autopilot Should be Disabled
July 14, 2016      

Consumer watchdog Consumer Reports is urging Tesla to disable its Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system, which has been involved in three accidents since May 7, 2016 and is under investigation by US regulators after the fatal crash that killed 40-year-old Joshua Brown.

Consumers Reports said there’s potential for driver confusion based around the following messages from Tesla about Autopilot:

  1. Your vehicle can drive itself
  2. You may need to take the wheel at a moment’s notice

Consumer Reports also mentioned the possibility that Tesla drivers using Autopilot might “not be engaged enough to to react quickly to emergency.”

Consumer Reports also points out that Tesla Autopilot is the only semi-autonomous driving system out there that allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel for “significant periods of time.” Nissan ProPilot, a semi-autonomous driving system that will launch in August 2016 in Japan, will also allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel for a certain amount of time before disengaging.

With Tesla under so much scrutiny, the timing of the ProPilot announcement is quite a head-scratcher.

Here’s what Consumer Reports wants Tesla to do with Autopilot:

  1. Disable “Autosteer” until it can be reprogrammed to require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel
  2. Stop referring to the system as “Autopilot” as it is misleading and potentially dangerous
  3. Issue clearer guidance to owners on how the system should be used and its limitations
  4. Test all safety-critical systems fully before public deployment; no more beta releases

“By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” says Laura MacCleery, VP of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports. “In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer. But today, we’re deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology. ‘Autopilot’ can’t actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time. Tesla should disable automatic steering in its cars until it updates the program to verify that the driver’s hands are on the wheel.”

MacCleery continued, “Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs. At the same time, regulators urgently need to step up their oversight of cars with these active safety features. NHTSA should insist on expert, independent third-party testing and certification for these features, and issue mandatory safety standards to ensure that they operate safely.”

Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas agrees with Consumer Reports, saying Tesla should reconsider renaming Autopilot. Here’s what Jonas wrote in a research note:

The name ‘Autopilot’ could create a consumer expectation problem and a potential moral hazard. When you hear the world ‘Autopilot,’ you may think of technology for commercial airline pilots which temporarily relieve the human operator from using the aircraft controls. In fact, Tesla Autopilot is meant to be a driver assist and when activating the system, the driver is presented with a warning that is meant to keep his hands on the wheel at all times to ensure safe operation of the vehicle. Unfortunately, some drivers may be tempted to explore the novelty factor of the system in ways that expose themselves, fellow passengers and other vehicles on public roads to great danger.

These statements from Consumer Reports and Morgan Stanley probably mean nothing, as Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk already told The Wall Street Journal that Tesla will not disable Autopilot, but the pressure is mounting on Tesla to do something. And hopefully that something leads to an all-around better semi-autonomous driving system.

Recently there have been three serious accidents involving Tesla Autopilot. The latest crash occurred Saturday, July 9 at 12:30 AM in Montana. The driver of a Tesla Model X told local authorities that the car, while on Autopilot at 55-65 MPH, crashed into railing wires along the side of Montana State Highway 2. Neither the driver nor his passenger were injured, but it was serious enough to destroy the car.

On July 1, 2016, 77-year-old Albert Scaglione flipped his Model X onto its roof while driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He said the car was driving on Autopilot at the time of the accident, but Tesla said it disagrees and has “no reason to believe that Autopilot had anything to do with this accident.” Scaglione and the passenger, his son-in-law, were treated and released at a nearby hospital following the accident.

Of course, this string of Tesla Autopilot crashes kicked off June 30 when news broke about the fatal crash involving Brown in Williston, Fla. A tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of Brown’s Tesla Model S, which didn’t see the tractor-trailer and failed to apply the brakes.

[Source] Consumer Reports