If you have a Tesla and use Autopilot, please keep your hands on the steering wheel

KTVU via Associated PressThe Model X than crashed in California.

  • I’ve driven several Tesla vehicles on Autopilot and feel strongly that drivers should never take their hands off the steering wheel.
  • Despite two fatal crashes in the US involving Autopilot, and a clear finding of Autopilot’s limits by the NTSB, Tesla hasn’t disabled the Autosteer feature.
  • Tesla asserts that Autopilot reduces fatalities from potential crashes, but for now, allowing the vehicles to operate in a hands-free mode is too dangerous.

There have now been two fatal crashes of Tesla vehicles in the US while Autopilot was engaged. The first was in Florida in 2016 and the second was in California in March.

In both cases, vehicle logs revealed that the drivers in both cases did not respond to vehicle warnings to retake control before the accidents.

After the Florida crash, I urged anyone driving a Tesla to never take his or hands off the wheel, for any reason. Since then, I’ve had the chance to sample Autopilot in several new Teslas, including the Model 3 mass-market vehicle, and my view hasn’t changed. There’s no way Autopilot can drive a car by itself.

Let me stress: This is my opinion, based on my personal experience with Autopilot in a Model S, a Model X, and the Model 3. In the interest of journalism, I’ve periodically taken my hands off the wheel and monitored the Tesla systems, responding to warnings to better understand the system.

But Business Insider hasn’t conducted a scientific analysis of Autopilot’s capabilities, and when we’ve compared the system with other semi-self-driving setups, we’ve tried to be clear that we haven’t spent months reviewing the technology.

Tesla more or less agrees with me and now tells owners that Autopilot is not a fully self-driving, hands-free technology, and that when it’s operating, drivers should be prepared to take control of their vehicles when prompted. The system will deactivate if they ignore these warnings.

An ongoing temptation to think Teslas can drive themselves

But the Autosteer aspect of Autopilot continues to tempt drivers to go hands-free. Tesla argues that Autopilot makes driving safer and reduces the likelihood of a fatality, and I’m OK with giving the company the benefit of the statistics. The suite of features offered by Autopilot may very well assist a human driver in avoiding a tragic mishap.

The problem is that Tesla can’t force drivers to conduct themselves properly with Autosteer, and obviously some drivers are ignoring my advice.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the Florida crash and found that Autopilot contributed to the accident. “The Tesla driver’s pattern of use of the Autopilot system indicated an over-reliance on the automation and a lack of understanding of the system limitations,” the NTSB investigators concluded.

They added: “If automated vehicle control systems do not automatically restrict their own operation to conditions for which they were designed and are appropriate, the risk of driver misuse remains” and the “way in which the Tesla ‘Autopilot’ system monitored and responded to the driver’s interaction with the steering wheel was not an effective method of ensuring driver engagement.”

The NTSB may draw different conclusions from the California accident, which is being investigated. But to my mind, Tesla should immediately disable or recall the Autosteer feature. In my extensive experience with various driver-assist systems, offered by Tesla under Autopilot and by other manufacturers, I think that fatality avoidance will be preserved without Autosteer.

Tesla isn’t indicating that it will do this, and that’s entirely their decision, absent the government compelling them to disable the tech.

So if you own or lease a Tesla, please do what I’m telling you: If you engage Autopilot, do not under any circumstances take your hands off the steering wheel. Treat the system like advanced cruise control and nothing more.

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