Those of you who think that I only write positive things about Tesla will be happy this week. First, the article about Consumer Reports yanking their "Recommended" seal of approval from the Model S because of projected reliability issues, and now something about the brand new Autopilot capability almost causing accidents. Oh my!
If you watch the video below, you'll see a Tesla owner letting his autopilot take over (taking his hands off the wheel, which Tesla says you shouldn't do) on a windy back-country road. At one point, the system starts beeping and asks the driver to take the wheel, and after a bit, the car starts swerving in the other lane, right as another vehicle is coming in the opposite direction. Thankfully, the driver is able to avoid the collision...
Did his Tesla go SkyNet all of a sudden? Things are a little more nuanced...
The first thing to note is that Tesla has been saying that the Autopilot should be used on the highway, and the videos showing problems mostly seem to be taken off the highway. But Tesla doesn't make it entirely clear on their website that Autopilot shouldn't be used elsewhere, and you'd think that if it wasn't supposed to be used on other roads, the system could just refuse to turn off (after all, the car knows where you are thanks to GPS and various sensors). Maybe that's something Tesla should consider implementing, at least until the system is more reliable...
The author of the video posted this bit of context on Youtube. Highlights are mine:
I am the proud owner of a 2015 Tesla SP90D, purchased with all available options. It is the best car I have ever owned and I love it dearly. I also own a large chunk of Tesla stock. Today my car received the anticipated version 7 software update and I was anxious to try it out near my home. After several seconds of successful hands-free driving, I admit I started to ignore the warning to keep my hands on the wheel so that I could record the moment to share with friends. That's when all hell broke loose. My car was tracking the car in front of me to successfully steer, but I was going slower and that car eventually drifted far ahead of me. Shortly after that, another car was coming in my car's direction from the opposite side of the road. I can only guess at what happened next. My car apparently thought the oncoming car was supposed to be followed, and suddenly veered to the left, crossing the double-yellow road divider line right into its path. Had I not reacted quickly to jerk the steering wheel in the opposite direction, a devastating head-on collision would have occurred. I post this in the hopes that it will prevent any losses to anyone using AutoPilot in similar circumstances and in the sincere hope that Tesla can address the issue as soon as possible if the software can somehow be improved in detecting both oncoming vehicles and cross-traffic lane dividers to avoid steering into oncoming traffic.
Note that the Autopilot was beeping and telling the driver to grab the wheel. I've zoomed in and adjusted the contrast on the video screen capture since this might be hard to see in the image above:
In a regular car, if you go hands free or drive with your knee and get into an accident, is it the fault of the car or of the driver? Misusing the Autopilot isn't unique; all vehicles can be misused and driven dangerously. But still, the system should be more foolproof.
There are other similar, though less dramatic videos, where the Autopilot can be seen taking a turn at the wrong moment.
Note that Tesla says that you should keep your hands on the wheel and pay attention, as you are still responsible for driving the car even with the Autopilot engaged.