Auto Tech

Autopilot Buddy is a dangerous way to cheat Tesla's hands-off warnings

Under no circumstances should anybody try to game Tesla's semi-automated system like this.

People have been doing dumb things in conjunction with Tesla's Autopilot driver-assist system since its inception. One accessory in particular seems to think it knows the car better than the company that built it.

Autopilot Buddy is a small, weighted device that provides enough torque on the steering wheel to reduce the number of warnings from the vehicle regarding hands-off operation when Autopilot is activated. It's formed to blend in with the wheel on a Tesla Model S or Model X (a Model 3 version is in development), and it clips to either side of the wheel using a two-part design connected with magnets. It's also $179.

"Autosteer was first released to Telsa [sic] owners in Oct 2015. Since that time 'updates' has [sic] slowly diminished the duration we can enjoy 'autopilot' in our cars," the website reads. "Reduced from thirty minutes to less than three minutes between nagging reminders; This [sic] left many owners upset."

$179 for something that looks like a melted Fitbit and increases your chances of being hurt behind the wheel. Yeah... no.

YouTube screencap

While this website, and apparently some owners, view the hands-off warnings as an impediment, they're actually there for a very good reason. Tesla's Autopilot is merely an assist to a human driver. It is not an autonomous system meant to replace the driver at any time, just to reduce the tedium of long, traffic-laden commutes. Tesla's website is very firm about this, and when drivers in the past have abused Autopilot beyond its intended purpose, very bad things have happened.

Autopilot Buddy's website seems to realize this at least in part, considering there's a disclaimer near the top of the page. There's also a pile of small print near the bottom of the page that points out that this piece is "designed for closed track use" and "not for use on public streets." Yet, the video review the maker has posted to its own website seems to feature a vehicle being operated on public roads, an action in direct violation of the company's own disclaimer. How 'bout that.

I have experience in the automotive aftermarket, and that's a catchall line of text designed to skirt liability should anything happen while the product is in use. You see that sort of warning on a number of exhaust systems that modify federally mandated emissions control devices.

It's worth noting that Tesla's own Autopilot page still has "full self-driving hardware on all cars" right at the top, since it claims its current hardware will eventually be capable of supporting proper hands-off autonomy. But Autopilot is not that system right now, nor will tricking it into reducing its warnings turn it into a full self-driving vehicle. It might benefit Tesla to change some of its language around.

Nevertheless, Dolder, Falco and Reese Partners LLC, the makers of Autopilot Buddy, clearly thinks it knows better than Tesla's own engineers and safety wonks, and that alone is enough to suggest that this product has zero regard for a driver's safety while operating advanced driver-assist systems.

When reached for comment by Roadshow, Tesla wouldn't comment on the device, or reveal whether or not it will consider taking action against the makers of Autopilot Buddy.

The makers of Autopilot Buddy did not immediately return Roadshow's request for comment. 

It's worth noting that this sort of hack isn't limited to Tesla, either. Many vehicles with steering assist rely on steering wheel torque to ensure a driver has their hands on the wheel during operation, and there have been videos of idiots cheating the system using all sorts of items, even oranges

Unlike Tesla's Autopilot, Cadillac's Super Cruise's more sophisticated hardware permits hands-off use, but it uses a camera to monitor the driver's face to ensure they're paying attention to the road during that time, and it has capacitive-touch sensors built into the steering wheel for added safety. According to a new story from The Wall Street Journal, Tesla allegedly considered steering wheel sensors and eye tracking to help beef up Autopilot's anti-abuse defenses, but those add-ons were allegedly cast aside over cost and effectiveness concerns. Elon Musk has since tweeted that the eye-tracking system was rejected due to a lack of effectiveness. Those failsafes would render the Autopilot Buddy useless.

To sum it up, if you're thinking about pushing an automaker's tech beyond its intended use, do everyone on the road a favor and don't.