Tesla test drive shows Autopilot will run without passenger behind the wheel

The experiment comes in the wake of a deadly Tesla crash in Harris County, Texas

A test drive of a 2020 Tesla Model Y conducted by Consumer Reports engineers reveals that the electric vehicle's Autopilot feature will run regardless of whether a passenger is behind the wheel. 

The experiment comes in the wake of a Tesla crash in Harris County, Texas, on Sunday that killed two people. Police found one of the victims in the passenger seat, while the other was in the back seat. Authorities are investigating whether the vehicle was operating on Autopilot.  

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According to Consumer Reports, several trips on a half-mile closed test track found that the Model Y automatically steered along painted lines, but that the system did not send out a warning or indicate the driver's seat was empty.

The outlet noted that its senior director of auto testing, Jake Fisher, engaged Autopilot while the car was in motion on the track, and set the speed dial to 0, which brought the car to a complete stop. Fisher then placed a small, weighted chain on the steering wheel to simulate the weight of a driver's hand and slid into the passenger seat without opening the vehicle's doors to avoid disengaging Autopilot. Using the same steering wheel dial, Fisher reached over and was able to accelerate the vehicle from a full stop and stop the vehicle by dialing the speed back down to zero.

"The car drove up and down the half-mile lane of our track, repeatedly, never noting that no one was in the driver’s seat, never noting that there was no one touching the steering wheel, never noting there was no weight on the seat," Fisher said in a statement. "It was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards, which we proved were clearly insufficient." 

"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," Fisher added. "Tesla is falling behind other automakers like GM and Ford that, on models with advanced driver assist systems, use technology to make sure the driver is looking at the road."

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BMW, Ford, GM, Subaru and others use camera-based 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's Model 3 and Model Y do have "cabin cameras" that monitor drivers, but not in real time. According to Tesla's website, the camera can capture and share a video clip of the moments before a crash or automatic emergency braking (AEB) activation to help the automaker "develop future safety features and software enhancements." 

In addition, Teslas with the Autopilot and Full Self Driving (FSD) features have sensors in the steering wheel that can detect whether a driver's hands are on the wheel, and will alert the driver to place their hands back on the wheel if they are too inattentive. The Autopilot and Full Self Driving (FSD) features can eventually lock a driver out of using the function if warnings are ignored too many times.

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Twitter user Ahmad A Dalhat pointed out the Autopilot sensors following Sunday's crash, which Tesla CEO Elon Musk used as an opportunity to dismiss the feature's involvement in the incident. 

Musk said Dalhat's research as a private individual was "better than professionals," specifically calling out the Wall Street Journal. 

"Data logs recovered so far show Autopilot was not enabled & this car did not purchase FSD," Musk continued. "Moreover standard Autopilot would require lane lines to turn on, which this street did not have."

Following Musk’s tweet, Texas police planned to serve search warrants on Tesla in order to secure data from the crash, Reuters reported. Federal safety regulators have also sent a team to investigate the crash. In addition to Sunday's fatal crash, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has 23 active investigations into other Tesla vehicle crashes, according to Reuters.

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Tesla recently released its accident data for the first quarter of 2021.

"Tesla with Autopilot engaged now approaching 10 times slower chance of accident than average vehicle," Musk claimed.

In the first quarter of 2021, the company registered one accident for every 4.19 million miles driven with Autopilot engaged. For those driving without Autopilot but with the Tesla's active safety features, the company registered one accident for every 2.05 million miles driven. As for those driving without Autopilot or active safety features, the company registered one accident for every 978,000 miles driven. 

In comparison, the most recent data from the National Highway Transportation Security Administration, the auto industry's top safety regulator, finds that there is an automobile crash in the United States every 484,000 miles. 

Tesla notes that the Model S, Model X and Model 3 have all achieved the lowest overall probability of injury of any vehicle tested by the federal government's new car assessment program. 

"Much of this has to do with the rigid, fortified structure of the battery pack that is mounted to a car’s floor, which provides a vehicle with exceptional strength, large crumple zones, and a uniquely low center of gravity," the company said in a statement. "Because of their strength, Tesla’s battery packs rarely incur serious damage in accidents. And, in the extremely unlikely event that a fire occurs, the state-of-the-art design of our battery packs ensures that its safety system works as intended and isolates a fire to select areas within the battery while simultaneously venting heat away from the passenger cabin and the vehicle."

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However, Tesla has warned that its Autopilot and full self-driving capability are "intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment."

"While these features are designed to become more capable over time, the currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous," a statement on its support page reads. 

Fisher reiterated Tesla's warning. 

"Let me be clear: Anyone who uses Autopilot on the road without someone in the driver seat is putting themselves and others in imminent danger," Fisher said.

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Tesla, which has done away with its media relations department, did not immediately return FOX Business’ request for comment.