When it rolled out its autopilot software to some 40,000 cars around the world, Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] was careful to note that the software being rolled out was a ‘public beta’ and as such, should be treated with caution.
To emphasis the point, Tesla CEO Elon Musk even reiterated during the press call announcing the autopilot-enabling 7.0 software update that customers should keep their hands on the wheel at all times, remaining alert in case they needed to step in and take over control of the car.
But during yesterday’s Q&A press call following the announcement of Tesla’s Q3 earnings, Musk admitted that some drivers were ignoring the warnings given by both himself and Tesla. As YouTube has shown, some drivers are taking too many chances with the newly-enabled autopilot beta software on their cars, showing a little too much faith in their car’s driving abilities.
While the overwhelming majority of those videos show the autopilot behaving impeccably, sometimes even preventing the car from being involved in a collision, they also show Tesla owners relaxing perhaps a little too much as their car takes the strain.
With that complacency, the level of risk rises. Despite Tesla’s instructions to keep hold of the wheel, most drivers aren’t.
As the occasional video shows, this results in near-misses, such as this one of a video showing the a Tesla Model S autopilot fail to negotiate the heinous intersection between Oregon state route 26, the busy I-405 freeway and off-ramps for downtown Portland.
In response to some of the more extreme YouTube videos, Musk wasn’t pleased with some of the “fairly crazy videos” he’d seen of drivers misusing Autopilot functionality. “This is not good,” he said. “We will be putting some additional constraints on when Autopilot can be activated to minimize the possibility of people doing crazy things.”
While Musk didn’t detail what those constraints will be, our best guess is additional geofencing to ensure that Model S and Model X owners don’t try to activate Autopilot in situations where it is either unsafe or inadvisable to do so — such as the busy intersection mentioned above.
Alternatively, use of sensors to detect if the driver is actually holding the steering wheel could also come into play. This feature — standard on every other semi-autonomous steering or lane-keep assist system we’ve used before — would essentially disengage autopilot if it didn’t detect the driver’s hand on the wheel.
“It was described as a beta release,” Musk said of the autopilot system. “The system will learn over time and get better and that’s exactly what it’s doing. It will start to feel quite refined within a couple of months.”
Already, he said, Tesla’s data centre has collected data from many many different accidents which Autopilot helped avoid by taking affirmative, defensive actions. Not a single accident caused by Autopilot has been detected.
Here at Transport Evolved, we’re glad to see Tesla move swiftly to ensure that its drivers are using Autopilot in a responsible way, and we’d like to remind readers who may or may not have an autopilot-enabled Tesla that, in accordance with Tesla’s own release notes for the 7.0 update, they should pay attention at all times when behind the wheel — regardless of whether they or the car is driving.
Finally, having talked to local police authorities in several different places, we’d like to remind readers that legal requirements concerning correct control of a vehicle vary from place to place. While many U.S. police patrols won’t pull you over for not holding onto the wheel (provided the car is being driven safely) not having your hands on the wheel in some countries — like the UK — is grounds for a citation.
Our advice? By all means, try the autopilot, but don’t be stupid.
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