Tesla Autopilot easily runs without a driver, Consumer Reports shows

With just some weight on the wheel and the seatbelt clicked in, Autopilot had no problem running without a driver present.

Sean Szymkowski
It all started with Gran Turismo. From those early PlayStation days, Sean was drawn to anything with four wheels. Prior to joining the Roadshow team, he was a freelance contributor for Motor Authority, The Car Connection and Green Car Reports. As for what's in the garage, Sean owns a 2016 Chevrolet SS, and yes, it has Holden badges.
Sean Szymkowski
2 min read

Hot on the heels of another deadly crash, Consumer Reports showed on Thursday that it's simple to game the automaker's system of ensuring there's a driver in the driver's seat. The test and video, above, show no one actually needs to be behind the wheel for Autopilot to run. According to the initial investigation of the latest crash in Texas, neither of the two victims killed in a were actually driving the car.

While we wait for more details from local and federal investigators, Consumer Reports' test highlights how easy it is to confuse Tesla's Autopilot system, which rates as a Level 2 driver-assist system on the SAE scale of autonomy. (No vehicle on sale today qualifies as a "self-driving car.") First, Jake Fisher, CR's senior director of auto testing, engages Autopilot and bumps the speed down to zero. This does not disengage the system, and while the car's stopped, he attaches a weight to the steering wheel. With the weight used to mimic a driver's hand on the wheel, Fisher scoots out of the driver's seat, leaves the seatbelt buckled in place and moves to the passenger seat.

From there, he increases the speed and Autopilot begins maneuvering and following the lines on the closed test course. Just like that, the car thinks a person remains behind the wheel. Autopilot does not use a camera or anything else to ensure a driver must be present and paying attention to the road ahead, which systems from General Motors, Ford and others do.

"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," Fisher said. "Tesla is falling behind other automakers like GM and Ford that, on models with advanced driver assist systems, use technology to make sure the driver is looking at the road."

Tesla does not operate a public relations department to field requests for comment.

Following the crash, and considerable interest from the federal government, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that early data logs showed the car did not have Autopilot engaged and was not equipped with the Full Self-Driving mode beta. CR notes Autopilot is still capable of many mistakes, just like any other driver-assist system sold with cars. And when it makes a mistake, it can shut off abruptly, potentially leading to a crash if the driver is not paying attention and ready to retake full control of the car.

Musk's only comment since Consumer Reports published its findings was to say, "Does seem a little weird," in response to a Tesla owner's assertion that the media was "really ramping up attacks against Tesla."

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