The engineers of Consumer Reports, an American non-profit dedicated to unbiased product testing and investigative journalism, said they “easily tricked” a Tesla vehicle to drive via its Autopilot feature without anyone in the driver’s seat.
The revelation comes just days after a fatal crash in the US where police said they found no one behind the steering wheel of a car from the American electric vehicle maker.
In a test conducted recently, test drivers took several trips on a closed half-mile track in a Tesla Model Y sport utility vehicle, Consumer Reports said in a statement.
The vehicle, with Autopilot technology engaged, was able to steer itself along painted lines but at no time displayed a warning that the driver’s seat was empty. The engineer who conducted the test placed a small weighted chain on the steering wheel to simulate the weight of a driver’s hand.
“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,” said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ senior director of auto testing. Mr. Fisher was able to reach over from the passenger seat and accelerate the car using a dial on the steering wheel.
Tesla didn’t respond to the allegations. The company has come under scrutiny for the way it markets Autopilot, which is a driver-assistance feature. Tesla has rolled out a feature it calls FSD, or Full Self Driving, to early customers who are “beta testing” the technology in advance of a wider release.
Two men were killed April 17 after a Tesla Model S sedan crashed and erupted into flames. Many details remain unresolved, including whether Autopilot was being used when the vehicle traveled a short distance before hitting a tree. The authorities said that one man was found in the front passenger seat and a second in one of the rear seats with no sign anyone was behind the wheel.
Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk took to Twitter earlier this week to say the vehicle’s driver-assist features weren’t to blame.
“Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled & this car did not purchase FSD,” Mr. Musk tweeted, referring to the company’s trial Full Self Driving software. “Moreover, standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have.”
The Autopilot mode in other vehicles from traditional carmakers like BMW, Ford and GM use camera-based driver assistance systems to track movement of a driver’s eyes and head position to make sure they are minding the road. Some of these vehicles, including those with GM’s Super Cruise system, will automatically slow to a stop if they sense drivers are too inattentive or disengaged.
Tesla vehicles have no such camera system but do have sensors in the steering wheel that can detect whether a driver’s hands are on the wheel. The vehicles will “nag” drivers to put their hands back on the wheel if they are too inattentive.