Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. are the world’s highest selling Electric-Vehicle (EV) manufacturer. Tesla currently has 4 models on offer in the US and its other main markets. The Model S, Model 3, Model X & Model Y are Tesla’s current offerings with the Tesla Roadster & the Cybertruck soon to be added to their line-up. All the models on sale have different range options and different combinations of safety + electronics options that the buyer can choose. The most famous of all these options is the Autopilot function in Tesla cars. Tesla’s cars with the Autopilot software can drive themselves from point A to point B without any inputs from the driver, given that the car’s radar, LIDAR and cameras recognise the lines and signs on the road (there has to be a driver present on the driving seat of Tesla and the driver has to keep resting their hands on the steering wheel at regular intervals as a safety feature).
Tesla’s Autopilot was first introduced in 2014 when customers could opt to buy a “Tech Package” during the purchase of their Tesla and the Autopilot software would be updated on their car via Over The Air (OTA) updates. In October 2015, Tesla officially launched the Autopilot function which included semi-autonomous driving and parking functions. Over the years Tesla have been rolling out updates to their Autopilot and continually improving it. Tesla’s Autopilot function was not without its faults or critics though, an alarmingly high number of Tesla’s cars with the Autopilot were involved in accidents mainly due to the driver not knowing how to use the feature or due to carelessness on part of the driver. This drew a lot of questions from road safety authorities asking about the safety and legalities of the Autopilot software.
Engineers in the UK have looked into consumer reports of Tesla cars being able to use the Autopilot feature without the presence of a driver on the driving seat. Engineers picked a Tesla Model Y to test the car on a closed track and found the system surprisingly easy to fool into thinking that there is a presence of a driver on the driver’s seat when actually there is no person present. The Tesla Autopilot system has a net of safety measures to ensure the cars aren’t driven without a driver driving it as it would become a sever safety issue. Tesla cars check if the seatbelt is worn, the driver’s seat has a weight sensor to detect the presence of a driver on the driving seat, the driver has to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times or at regular intervals to take over in case the Autopilot software miscalculates and leads the passengers into an accident, Tesla cars also have a feature which can sense if the driver is falling asleep while driving and the car tries to alert the driver if they are falling asleep or it pulls over to one side on its own.
Engineers testing the Tesla Model Y found out that it is rather easy to trick the Tesla Model Y into believing there is a passenger in the car and switch on the Autopilot function when in reality the car is unmanned at the wheel. These shocking reports from testing emerge just a few days after a fatal crash in Texas, USA in which police believe there was no one in the driver’s seat from the forensic evidence. The Consumer Reports team of engineers claim they successfully and repeatedly tricked the car into driving the test track without the presence of any driver.
The crash in Texas involved 2 men present in the Tesla when the car hit a tree and caught fire, the victims were found in the rear seat of the car leading the investigating officers to believe there was no present in the driver’s seat of the car.
Tesla boss Elon Musk says the data from the crashed car shows that the Autopilot system was inactive at the time of the crash and was not enabled. Mr. Musk also pointed out that the street on which the accident occurred did not have painted lines that would’ve been used by the Autopilot software to navigate the car. The case is a mysterious one indeed and two Democratic Senators sent a letter to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to investigate further on the fatal accident involving a Tesla car in Texas. The letter also included a request for a report on how the incidents would be prevented from occurring in the future. The NHTSA is currently investigating 28 cases of accidents that involve Tesla vehicles. As automotive companies work towards making autonomous vehicles, it is important to ensure the safety of passengers, motorists and pedestrians before putting the feature out in the real world.