Last Saturday, two men died when a Tesla Model S crashed into a tree in a residential neighborhood. Authorities said they found no one in the driver’s seat—one man was in the front passenger seat, while the other was in the back. That led to speculation that the car might have been under the control of Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assistance system at the time of the crash.
Elon Musk has tweeted that “data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled.” Tesla defenders also insisted that Autopilot couldn’t have been active because the technology doesn’t operate unless someone is in the driver’s seat. Consumer Reports decided to test this latter claim by seeing if it could get Autopilot to activate without anyone in the driver’s seat.
It turned out not to be very difficult.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, Consumer Reports’ Jake Fisher enabled Autopilot and then used the speed dial on the steering wheel to bring the car to a stop. He then placed a weighted chain on the steering wheel (to simulate pressure from a driver’s hands) and hopped into the passenger seat. From there, he could reach over and increase the speed using the speed dial.
Autopilot won’t function unless the driver’s seatbelt is buckled, but it was also easy to defeat this check by threading the seatbelt behind the driver.
“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,” Fisher wrote in a post on the Consumer Reports website.
Consumer Reports calls for more robust driver monitoring
Fisher sees these problems as evidence that Tesla has fallen behind other companies with more robust driver-monitoring systems. Companies like GM and Ford use driver-facing cameras to detect the driver’s face and ensure they are looking at the road. Such a system would have made it much more difficult to use Autopilot from the passenger seat.
Consumer Reports also suggested that Tesla could “use the weight sensor in the vehicle’s driver’s seat to determine whether there is a human sitting behind the wheel. These sensors are already used for seat belt warnings and airbags, among other things, so it wouldn’t be a major leap to program a vehicle to turn off features like cruise control if it senses that the driver’s seat is empty.”
At the same time, the investigation makes clear that activating Autopilot without being in the driver’s seat requires deliberately disabling safety measures. Fisher had to buckle the seatbelt behind himself, put a weight on the steering wheel, and crawl over to the passenger seat without opening any doors. Anybody who does that knows exactly what they’re doing. Tesla fans argue that people who deliberately bypass safety measures like this have only themselves to blame if it leads to a deadly crash.
Still, Consumer Reports argues that government regulators should require more robust safety checks that would make it almost impossible to activate Autopilot without someone in the driver’s seat. The group notes that European regulators will require driver-monitoring systems in cars starting in 2023 and urges US regulators to adopt similar rules.