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Senator Markey Eyes Safety Fixes for Tesla Autopilot

January 24, 2020

Lawmaker urges Tesla to adopt commonsense changes that will make sure drivers are paying attention to the road

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, today released his recommendations from his review of Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system. Autopilot allows a Tesla car to center itself in a lane, offer speed-changing cruise control, and self-park, among other autonomous functions. Because the technology is not meant to actually replace drivers, however, Tesla requires users to keep their hands on the wheel and stay engaged with the road.

 

Senator Markey began his investigation after media reports revealed that Tesla drivers have identified a variety of ways to circumvent the safety alerts and automatic shut-off feature that are designed to activate when a user of Autopilot is no longer paying attention. These techniques are posted online and include strategically resting a driver’s hand at the six o’clock position on the wheel, tying a weight to the wheel, and wedging a water bottle or an orange into the wheel. Tesla drivers have used these tricks to keep their car driving on Autopilot even when they are asleep at the wheel, creating enormous safety risks to themselves and the public at large.

After writing to Tesla, receiving the company’s reply, and meeting with Tesla representatives, Senator Markey has identified a few commonsense fixes that he believes could improve the safety of Tesla Autopilot and do more to prevent drivers from disengaging with the road.

“Autopilot is a flawed system, but I believe its dangers can be overcome,” said Senator Markey. “I have been proud to work with Tesla on advancing cleaner, more sustainable transportation technologies. But these achievements should not come at the expense of safety. That’s why I’m calling on Tesla to use its resources and expertise to better protect drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and all other users of the road. I urge Tesla to adopt my commonsense recommendations for fixing Autopilot, which include rebranding and remarketing the system to reduce misuse, as well as building backup driver monitoring tools that will make sure no one falls asleep at the wheel. Tesla can and must do more to guarantee the safety of its technology.”

In his investigation, Senator Markey found:

  • Tesla promotes confusion about the capabilities and limits of its driver assistance system with an inherently misleading name – “Autopilot” – that encourages users to over-rely on the technology. This branding significantly undermines all of the user manuals and subsequent instructions that Tesla issues to its customers that explain how the system is not fully autonomous and how drivers must stay actively engaged with the road.
    • Markey Recommendation: Tesla should rebrand and remarket Autopilot to make it clear from the beginning that its driver assistance system is not fully autonomous and cannot replace drivers on the road. This rebranding would significantly reduce the confusion that encourages driver misuse of the technology.
  • Tesla has attempted to prevent drivers from circumventing Autopilot’s safeguards by upgrading its steering wheel torque monitoring system to require human interaction and to deactivate when there is too little or too much torque applied. These measures should help defeat many of the Autopilot tricks that were identified in recent news articles. However, Tesla admits that some drivers still “may be able to trick the system for a short time,” which reveals an inherent flaw in Tesla’s decision to over-rely on its hand-pressure system for monitoring driver engagement.
    • Markey Recommendation: Tesla should build backup monitoring systems into Autopilot. If Tesla’s steering wheel sensors can be tricked, then Tesla should employ a second or third system to monitor driver engagement in different ways. This kind of technological redundancy would promote safety by making sure that one system is always monitoring a driver’s attention even if another sensor fails or is tricked by the user.

Senator Markey’s original letter to Tesla can be found HERE. Tesla’s reply to Senator Markey can be found HERE.

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