HOUSTON — A fatal crash is raising concerns about the autopilot feature in Tesla vehicles.
On April 17, Dr. William Varner and Everette Talbot were killed in The Woodlands. Local investigators said no one was found in the driver’s seat of the car.
No matter what the cause of the tragic accident was, it has raised questions about the autopilot system, including the question of if it can work if someone isn’t sitting behind the wheel.
Some Tesla drivers claim it does. including Derek Alfonso.
To understand how the autopilot works you need to forget what you know about most cars on the road. The meters, gauges and buttons are reduced to a single touchscreen in a Tesla. It does everything and it controls a function called “autopilot.”
“I’ve got this huge agreement here,” Alfonso told us as he read the words on the monitor. “And it’s really clear about where you should use it. When you should use it. And of course, the car won’t let you use it unless it can see road lines.”
Alfonso showed us how Tesla’s self-driving feature (autopilot) allows it to move with the flow of traffic, at the speed you desire, and it can even control the steering on marked roadways.
But for the autopilot feature to work, the safety features are supposed to confirm a driver is behind the wheel. Sensors make sure the driver’s seatbelt is buckled. Weight sensors in the driver’s seat detect that someone is sitting there. Sensors on the steering wheel make sure a hand is touching the wheel.
“The first demonstration will be to engage autopilot, take off my seatbelt while autopilot is engaged to see how autopilot reacts to me taking off my seatbelt,” Alfonso said.
He showed us what happened when one of those safety conditions is lost.
“If I decide to take off my seatbelt, it immediately, as you can hear, turns on the alarms and pulls my car over,” Alfonso said.
But Alfonso said there could be a way to trick the system.
“I don’t think this is what you should be doing, but you could buckle the seatbelt first,” he said. “Hop into the vehicle, and then perhaps you could hop into the passenger seat. Let’s give that a try.”
Alfonso was able to drive away and then enable autopilot while sitting on top of the buckled seatbelt.
“(To) Go from being in autopilot, then go ahead and switch over here to the other seat. (It's) Not exactly easy, but it is possible to do,” he said.
That’s just one of the ways people have figured out how to work around Tesla’s autopilot. Consumer Reports did a recent test with a Tesla Model Y.
“It was slightly concerning that all we had to do was have the seatbelt buckled ... a small weight hanging from the steering wheel, which tripped the sensor into thinking our hands were on the wheel and we were able to engage autopilot,” said Kelly Funkhouser, with Consumer Reports.
She said the holes in the technology speak to a bigger issue.
“This isn’t just a Tesla problem,” Funkhouser said. “The fact that there could be no driver in the driver’s seat says a lot about the current technology out there. We have these amazing features that can moderate our speed, and steer to try to keep us in lanes but none of them are aware if there’s even a driver in the driver’s seat.”