Tesla’s Autopilot system may be OK for CEO Elon Musk’s risk tolerance, but while people are suffering collisions and even dying with it engaged, changes are needed poste-haste.
Changes Tesla needs to make now include: pull it until fixes are made, change the name of the “misleading and potentially dangerous” Autopilot system, test and validate further, and quit with the “beta” experiment.
Or, so essentially says Consumer Reports which today published its view that Tesla’s “beta” software uses the customers for its high-priced cars as “guinea pigs” while it works out essentially experimental software subject to further testing and refinement.
Consumer Reports viewpoint follows the May 7 death in Florida of Joshua Brown, 40, in a Model S whose Autopilot system did not see a tractor trailer crossing the highway. A couple more collisions have been reported while Autopilot was engaged, and two federal safety agencies are investigating, as is, notes Consumer Reports, the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding Tesla’s 54-day delay in informing it.
“Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs,” said Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports. “At the same time, regulators urgently need to step up their oversight of cars with these active safety features. NHTSA [National Highway Transportation Safety Administration] should insist on expert, independent third-party testing and certification for these features, and issue mandatory safety standards to ensure that they operate safely.”
Tesla has said its cars have accrued over 130 million miles on Autopilot with a better safety record than conventional vehicles and its “beta” Autopilot system is subject to “significant internal validation.” Consumer Reports did not acknowledge that Tesla has defined “beta” as a very high one-billion road miles. Instead, it focused on what “beta” customarily implies.
“Consumer Reports has owned three Teslas (2013 Model S 85, 2014 Model S P85D, and 2016 Model X 90D),” Consumer Reports wrote, “and we’ve seen first-hand how such beta software is transmitted wirelessly into the cars. When software in a desktop computer or handheld electronic device is labeled as ‘beta’ — it typically means that functionality is not fully developed and is still being fine-tuned.”
And whether regulators also take Consumer Reports’ advice, or not, the watchdog publication makes its own recommendations, noting Tesla is more aggressive than other more-experienced automakers in allowing customers to drive hands free:
‘Autopilot’ – A Misnomer?
Not mincing words, Consumer Reports’ objection over the name for the system arises because it thinks it is “hype” that has been misleading to the public.
While the exact cause of the fatal accident is not yet known, the incident has caused safety advocates, including Consumer Reports, to question whether the name Autopilot, as well as the marketing hype of its roll-out, promoted a dangerously premature assumption that the Model S was capable of truly driving on its own. Tesla’s own press release for the system announced “Your Autopilot has arrived” and promised to relieve drivers “of the most tedious and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel.” But the release also states that the driver “is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car.”
Consumer Reports experts believe that these two messages—your vehicle can drive itself, but you may need to take over the controls at a moment’s notice—create potential for driver confusion.
The ‘Handoff Problem’
At issue is human psychology of the purportedly “misleading” double message that many other commentators have noted already, but for which Consumer Reports adds data to back its position.
“By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” said MacCleery. “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.”
The term for this by researchers into autonomous driving technology is the “Handoff Problem.”
A Google report cited by Consumer Reports says the cognitive switch is too much for average drivers.
According to a study by NHTSA, test subjects required from three to 17 seconds to regain control of a semi-autonomous vehicle when the car alerted them it was no longer under the computer’s control.
“At 65 mph, that’s between 100 feet and quarter-mile traveled by a vehicle effectively under no one’s control,” said Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports said that it did contact Tesla “about these concerns,” and Tesla answered as follows:
“Tesla is constantly introducing enhancements, proven over millions of miles of internal testing, to ensure that drivers supported by Autopilot remain safer than those operating without assistance. We will continue to develop, validate, and release those enhancements as the technology grows. While we appreciate well-meaning advice from any individual or group, we make our decisions on the basis of real-world data, not speculation by media.”