One of the most appealing features of Tesla’s cars is their ability to steer themselves. But the semi-autonomous “Autopilot” feature has been linked to a series of crashes, and increasingly is blamed for encouraging drivers to take their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel.
Tesla has responded by sending drivers mixed messages. While the automaker warns drivers using Autopilot in a dashboard display to “keep your hands on the wheel,” Tesla continues to allow drivers to do the opposite—even as it steadily updates the software.
In a recent test drive, The Information found that a 2018 Model 3 with the most recent software update for Autopilot allowed the driver to keep their hands off the wheel for between 20 and 39 seconds before flashing a dashboard alert to retake control of the vehicle. The test, which lasted for more than an hour, was done at highway speeds with light to moderate traffic. Yet government crash investigators have found that Tesla drivers, like any other drivers, typically have three seconds or less to react to avoid a collision.
Disengaging “Autosteer,” Autopilot’s most controversial feature, is easy. The driver can apply the brakes, turn the wheel or toggle a lever behind the steering wheel.
But if the driver is distracted, it can take him or her an additional 10 to 15 seconds to regain full awareness of the road after the individual has regained control of the car, said Peter Hancock, a professor at the University of Central Florida who studies human interaction with automated systems. This delay in what researchers refer to as “situational awareness,” has been a known safety issue for decades, Mr. Hancock said, citing studies of airplane pilots in the 1990s.
While 10 to 15 seconds is potentially dangerous even in the air, it isn’t nearly enough time to avoid collisions at high speed on the road. “On the highway, if you’re doing 70 mph, you have one to two seconds—maybe,” said Mr. Hancock.
Tesla promotes the notion of driving hands-free on its Autopilot home page. On the site, Tesla presents a video showing a person sitting in the driver’s seat without his hands on the wheel as a car traverses narrow city streets and country roads. The video begins with the caption: “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.”
But in the fine print of the owner’s manual, Tesla warns drivers to never take their hands off the steering wheel—a similar warning that comes up when drivers engage Autosteer, the primary feature of Autopilot.
A Tesla spokeswoman said the video refers to future capabilities.
Meanwhile, Tesla has gradually reduced the time it allows drivers to drive hands-free by shortening the time between warning messages when the car detects no human input, which owners refer to as “nag” warnings. The car first gives a visual warning and, if the driver fails to touch the wheel, Autopilot eventually shuts off.
A Tesla spokeswoman said that nag times vary based on conditions such as speed, acceleration, location and other vehicles nearby.
Embattled Tesla CEO Elon Musk addressed the tension inherent in the carmaker’s messaging in June, tweeting in response to complaints about increased nag warnings. “This is crux of matter: can’t make system too annoying or people won’t use it, negatively affecting safety, but also can’t allow people to get too complacent or safety again suffers,” Mr. Musk wrote, adding that software updates “should have a positive effect on latter issue especially.”
“The feedback that we get from our customers shows that they have a very clear understanding of what Autopilot is, how to properly use it and what features it consists of,” a Tesla spokeswoman said.
YouTube and social media are teeming with Tesla owners demonstrating how they use Autopilot to drive hands-free. Many love the feature and see no safety concerns with it. In fact, many appear to consider driving hands-free to be a key feature of the Tesla.
Take Gordon Nash, a retired New York Police Department inspector, who drives a Tesla Model S in West Palm Beach, Fla. He said the feature “allows you to text while driving.”
“Not that I do it much,” Mr. Nash said. “But if a response is necessary, and I’m on the highway, I’ll do it.”
Heather Lommatzsch, a Utah woman who in May crashed into a firetruck while on Autopilot, told police she was looking at her phone when it happened. She said she was comfortable letting Autopilot drive for her, and had done so numerous times before. She suffered a broken foot in the crash.
Ms. Lommatzsch recently sued Tesla, alleging the semi-autonomous driving feature “failed to engage as advertised” in her collision. “Based on conversations with Tesla sales people, [Ms. Lommatzsch] understood that the Tesla Model S’s safety features would ensure the vehicle would stop on its own in the event of an obstacle being present,” according to her complaint.
But as has been the case in other high-profile crashes involving Autopilot, a lawyer for Tesla put the blame on Ms. Lommatzsch.
“Contrary to the proper use of Autopilot, the driver did not pay attention to the road at all times, did not keep her hands on the steering wheel, and she used it on a street with no center median and with stoplight controlled intersections,” Tesla attorney Ryan McCarthy wrote in an email to police obtained by The Information. Tesla’s diagnostic data shows that Ms. Lommatzsch had her hands off the wheel for 80 seconds just prior to the crash.