Tesla’s latest addition to its autopilot beta software, the ‘Summon’ mode, is certainly a unique selling point of Tesla’s high-end luxury electric cars. Utilizing the latest autopilot beta code rolled out in the Tesla Software 7.1 update a few weeks ago, Summon mode makes it possible to automatically park your Tesla Model S or Tesla Model X in your garage after you’ve got out, or have the software bring your car out of the garage in the morning to greet you at the front door. The only caveat? You need a Tesla with Autopilot-enabled hardware (one made after October 2014) and have a private driveway.
But while Tesla Autopilot Summon is a cool party trick, Consumer Reports has demonstrated that Tesla Autopilot Summon isn’t completely foolproof and, under certain circumstances, could fail to operate as Tesla intended. After explaining its findings to the California automaker, the consumer organization says Tesla is preparing a software update that will be released this week to address the flaw.
The issue stems from the way in which Autopilot Summon can be engaged and disengaged from a vehicle’s remote or from the official Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] smartphone app. Other versions of extra-vehicular autonomous parking features that we’ve seen from Nissan and BMW — both of which are yet to make it into a commercial product — require the owner to keep their finger pressed on a remote control button or smartphone app screen in order to keep the car moving, a feature commonly known as a ‘dead man’s switch’. If the person operating the car remotely lets go of that switch, the car will simply stop.
In the case of Tesla’s Autopilot Summon mode, at least the version tested by Consumer Reports, there’s no such feature, meaning the customer only needs a momentary press of their remote control or smartphone screen to engage and operate Autopilot Summon. Technically, this makes it possible with the current software for a car in Autopilot Summon to continue to move if the owner becomes distracted or incapacitated, or drops their remote or smartphone unintentionally.
“Summon initially was designed to operate with a key fob or Tesla smartphone app—and we tried out both. To use the key fob, we held down the top button until the hazard lights went on, and then pressed either the front or the rear of the fob to move the car forward or backward,” Consumer Reports explains on its website. “Pressing any button on the fob stopped the vehicle. The smartphone app worked similarly. A tap on an on-screen button to begin movement, a tap to stop it.”
With plenty of hardware sensors located around themselves, the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X can override user-initiated Autopilot behavior (including Summon) if they detect a large object in the way, such as a wall or a fence. Sensors in the wheels also stop Autopilot Summon functionality if a change in torque is detected (such as when a wheel hits a curb, for example). But while that covers most use scenarios, Tesla warns users when activating Autopilot Summon that small obstacles like bicycles or bags won’t always be detected, and thus asks them to remain within sight of the car at all times while Autopilot Summon is operating.
Through its independent testing, Consumer Reports noted that its own Model S P85D failed to detect a bicycle or a duffel bag while using Summon mode, and actually hit both before stopping. In another incident, it reports that one of its testers also damaged one of the Model S’ 21-inch wheels against his garage curb before being able to stop the car.
In the last of these instances, it appears that the tester wasn’t able to hit the stop button fast enough to stop the car from moving, causing the damage to occur. Were Tesla’s system to employ a dead man’s switch, it suggested, it would be far easier for customers to quickly and safely apply the brakes and stop the car from moving.
Armed with this information, the organization approached Tesla, noting its safety concerns as being a relatively low but unnecessary risk. Arguing that other machines such as power tools and lawnmowers feature dead man’s switches, Consumer Reports said that the fix to Tesla’s Autopilot Summon safety flaw was easy and straightforward.
Tesla agreed. Responding to Consumer Reports’ concerns quickly, the automaker confirmed that a new software upgrade has been written requiring full tactile interaction is kept between smartphone and user when Autopilot Summon is engaged, implementing a dead man’s switch to ensure safety for everyone. Due to be rolled out this week, Tesla’s update will also make it possible to cancel Summon with the vehicle’s key fob, but removes the capability to initiate the function from the same.
“Summon is an important step towards a safer autonomous future. Since introducing Summon just four weeks ago, our customers have used it hundreds of thousands of times safely and successfully. As a beta feature, we continue to test Summon and collect feedback from real-world user experience. Consumer Reports surfaced valid concerns that we’ve already built fixes for, continuing to make Summon and our vehicles better,” Tesla said in an official statement.
In the world of cutting-edge autonomous vehicle technology, concerns like this are always going to be at the forefront of consumer’s minds. But thanks to the way in which the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X are designed — namely that features rely on software implementation as much as hardware — it’s been easy and simple for Tesla to push an update out with minimal fuss.
And in an age where autonomous vehicles are beginning to become a reality, the capability to offer over-the-air, almost instantaneous updates is of paramount importance for owners, automakers, and other road users if we are all to eventually trust autonomous vehicles with our lives.
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