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Tesla drivers are ‘inattentive’ when using Autopilot because they have ‘incorrect expectations’ of system, researchers find

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Tesla Crash-Florida (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Tesla Crash-Florida (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Autonomous systems make drivers less attentive to the road even through ‘self-driving’ technology still requires the human behind the wheel to remain focused, a new study has found.

Researchers from MIT studied 290 drivers, recording where they looked and how long for before and after they had disengaged Tesla’s Autopilot technology, which the researchers say is considered to be one of the most capable systems available, but found that there was “evidence that drivers may not be using AP as recommended”.

Data suggests that “before disengagement, drivers looked less on road and focused more on non-driving related areas compared to after the transition to manual driving. The higher proportion of off-road glances before disengagement to manual driving were not compensated by longer glances ahead”.

Monitoring the driver’s posture, face, and view in front of the vehicle over a total of 500,000 miles between all the drivers, the researchers found that checking side mirrors and rear mirrors decreased while AutoPilot was engaged.

“This change in behaviour could be caused by a misunderstanding of what the system can do and its limitations, which is reinforced when automation performs relatively well”, the researchers wrote, but could also be an effect of “boredom” if the drivers have “incorrect expectations about system performance”.

Tesla currently uses a hands-on-wheel system to monitor driver engagement, but does not monitor eye or head movements. One driver was captured apparently napping while in a Tesla vehicle, with his hands still on the wheel.

“Our driver-monitoring system repeatedly reminds drivers to remain engaged and prohibits the use of Autopilot when warnings are ignored”, a Tesla spokesperson told The Independent at the time, adding that “at highway speeds, drivers typically receive warnings every 30 seconds or less if their hands aren’t detected on the wheel.”

This research comes after several high-profile crashes with Tesla vehicles. In April 2021, two men died after it was claimed that a Tesla with no driver hit a tree and burst into flames – although Tesla has said that there was indeed a driver in the car.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States announced in August 2021 that they were officially investigating the electric vehicle company.

It has also been claimed by a consumer group that the self-driving technology can be “easily tricked” to activate without a driver.

“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,” says Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing, who conducted the experiment. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent at the time.

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