After two people were killed over the weekend when a Tesla hit a tree in Texas, local officials said the car apparently was on autopilot when it crashed, without anyone in the driver's seat. When CEO Elon Musk tweeted that it looked like autopilot wasn't engaged and couldn't be used anyway on that stretch of road, Consumer Reports decided to run an experiment. Its engineers had no problems fooling a Tesla Model Y into using autopilot without anyone sitting behind the wheel. The car gave no warning that the driver's seat was empty. "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," said Jake Fisher, who led the test. Autopilot has been known to shut off without telling the driver, which it can do when it's stumped by a scenario. "If the driver isn’t ready to react quickly," Fisher said, "it can end in a crash."
A couple of steps were involved in the trickery, which let a passenger reach over and control the speed through a dial on the steering wheel, accelerating the car from a full stop. "The car drove up and down the half-mile lane of our track, repeatedly, never noting that no one was in the driver's seat, never noting that there was no one touching the steering wheel," Fisher said. Musk had said the Texas road didn't have painted lanes, which autopilot needs to work, and the track Consumer Reports used did have them. But other drivers have shown autopilot will work on roads without painted lanes, per the Verge. The engineers warned against trying to re-create their experiment. It's dangerous, Fisher said. Also, "it was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards," he said, "which we proved were clearly insufficient." Consumer Reports' article can be found here. (Read more Tesla stories.)