Intelligent Machines

What Will Tesla Drivers Do Behind the Wheel with Autopilot Engaged?

Tesla’s Autopilot lets some of its cars drive automatically at highway speeds. But can drivers be trusted to stay focused?

Oct 16, 2015

This week Tesla introduced the most advanced automated driving technology available in any commercial vehicle. The new feature, called Autopilot, was made available through the latest software patch for its Model S, and it will take the wheel (and the pedals) at highway speeds, even changing lanes automatically when the turn signal is activated. You can watch a video of it in action here.

The instrument display shown during Autopilot mode.

Automotive writers have gushed about how well it works, and it certainly burnishes the image of Tesla as technology pioneer. But it’s worth remembering that this level of automation can be problematic, and can lead to some troubling behavior—both deliberate and unintentional.

As my colleague Tom Simonite reported last year, Google’s experiments with giving self-driving cars to its employees resulted in such blasé behavior (including one driver reaching into the backseat to grab a laptop) that the company decided to change its approach to automation completely (see “Lazy Humans Shaped Google’s New Autonomous Car”).

A couple of years ago, during a hands-free cruise around a Germany autobahn, I discovered for myself just how easy it is to put your faith in an automated driving system, even when flying along at over 80 miles per hour (see “Driverless Cars are Further Away Than You Think”).

A lack of focus could be problematic if the system suddenly needs help. A number of studies have, in fact, shown that it can take several seconds for a driver to regain control. Recent simulator experiments showed that, depending on what the driver is doing and what’s happening on the road, it can take up to eight seconds for a driver to regain complete control.

Tesla’s system apparently uses lane markings to guide a car along the road, and such systems can run into problems in poor weather or when transitioning onto a new stretch of road. The system does issue a series of warnings when the driver needs to retake control, and it will automatically stop if he or she fails to respond. But it isn’t clear how much notice they are given. 

“Tesla is definitely leading the pack on automated driving at the consumer level,” says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT’s Age Lab who studies driver distraction. “But how we as drivers will behave in the short and long (i.e. behavioral adaption) term with these automation technologies is just unknown.”

Tesla is also far from the only carmaker developing such automated highway driving technology. Mercedes and Volvo already offer slightly more limited systems, and GM has committed to launching something similar to Tesla’s technology next year. Other carmakers are being more cautious, though, and their systems may require the driver to keep his or her hands on the wheel. Audi has even suggested that its system could call the police if it thinks a driver is nodding off.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that the new technology is still in “beta” mode, and drivers will be liable for any accidents. That’s another good reason to pay attention, even if it seems like you don’t have to.