Science & Technology

MIT: Tesla Drivers Become ‘Inattentive’ While Using AutoPilot

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(Photo: Taun Stewart/Unsplash) 
US safety officials are asking Tesla to pump the brakes on its full self-driving (FSD) feature, which the company plans on releasing to a wider range of drivers in a matter of days. They have good reason to worry. According to a new MIT study, drivers become “inattentive” while engaging Tesla’s FSD feature. It’s the latest in research that confirms what we all basically already knew.

Researchers analyzed glance data from 290 human FSD disengagement epochs to determine whether drivers using the capability focus their gaze less on the road and more on, well, anything else. They found that off-road glances lasted longer when drivers had FSD engaged, and that non-driving related glimpses downward and toward the center stack area made up a majority of total glances. These were also the longest-lasting glances; 22 percent of them exceeded two seconds. This may not sound like much, but when you’re flying down the freeway, every fraction of a second counts. 

Tesla’s “infotainment” system offers plenty of distracting entertainment options. (Photo: Malte Helmhold/Unsplash)

“Visual behavior patterns change before and after AP disengagement,” the researchers found. “Before disengagement, drivers looked less on road and focused more on non-driving related areas compared to after the transition to manual driving.”

The increased prevalence of downward and dashboard glances while using FSD aren’t exactly shocking. Texting while driving is already a widespread issue, and Tesla’s infotainment system is so chock-full of unnecessary features and recreational offerings, providing drivers with plenty of reason to look away from the road if they don’t feel like they need to keep an eye on it in the first place. (The company’s latest $2,000 infotainment system upgrade allows Tesla owners to play Stardew Valley on their dashboard.) The overall findings aren’t surprising, either, given that many find FSD, or “Autopilot” in Tesla-speak, enticing because it allows drivers to sit back and relax. 

Still, insufficient attention paid to the road can have deadly consequences. The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board recently called Tesla’s use of the term “full self-driving” misleading, saying it runs the risk of leading people to “misuse and abuse” the technology. Tesla claims its most recent iteration, FSD 10.0.1, is capable of making “smarter and more confident decisions,” but only off the highway, where the technology remains the same. The NTSB can make recommendations grounded in transportation safety, but does not have any enforcement capabilities.

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