It seems that almost every new car has a driver-assist package the automaker is quick to boast about — and you can get improved versions with more features for more money. There is no doubt about it, though — none of them are more famous (or “infamous”) than Tesla Autopilot. While Tesla fans love to see updates and post on social media about how good those updates are, people who love to hate Tesla (or just Elon Musk) seem to be even more obsessed with treating Autopilot as the devil incarnate (or I guess Elon is the devil incarnate, so let’s say that Autopilot is a demon incarnate).
Anyway — the news of the week in Tesla world is that the NHTSA has opened an official investigation into Autopilot. Tesla haters are giddy. Some Tesla fans may be concerned, but the consensus I’ve seen is that there’s nothing to worry about and it could even be a good thing that “shuts up the detractors” presuming that the NHTSA concludes Tesla is doing things in a good way. And why do Tesla fans think the investigation will favor Tesla? Because Tesla’s Autopilot system is just another advanced driver assistant system (ADAS), and it is either equal to or better that all the other ADAS on the market (I think it is solidly better than the other systems, but I’m leaving a lot of room for creative, subjective rankings here).
I don’t even know if there have been NHTSA investigations into other ADAS on the market — because we all know that people wouldn’t pay any attention to them. So, while the meme below is funny and expresses a certain point quite well, I’m not even sure if the metaphor is accurate. However, it is definitely a good metaphor for one thing …
NHTSA Screening Process 😂😂 @elonmusk
Credit u/goatedboat5 | Reddit pic.twitter.com/HEbrKYxQTf
— Eva Fo𝕏 🦊 Claudius Nero's Legion 𝕏 (@EvaFoxU) August 17, 2021
… which is that this is how many Tesla critics treat Tesla Autopilot. There are many similar ADAS from other automakers that have much bigger weaknesses than Autopilot, yet not a peep from the people who deem Autopilot a demon incarnate. You could say that these Tesla critics are the NHTSA in this video meme.
ProPilot, Co-Pilot360, Travel Assist, Blue Cruise, Super Cruise. Everyone’s got a creative name that makes their ADAS sound great. Tesla Autopilot, as everyone should know, comes from the airplane world. Some people seem to think it implies that the Tesla can completely drive itself, but a plane doesn’t completely fly itself without a pilot, so I’ve never been a big fan of that concern. Also … automobile, ahem. Anyway, though, the point is that there are all kinds of cool names and only one that has people flipping out.
One way this was highlighted recently was when a Tesla crashed into a tree in Texas, the police officer there said there wasn’t a person in the driver’s seat (it was later confirmed there must have been a human driving before the crash), and Consumer Reports highlighted how someone could trick a Tesla to think there was a human in the driver seat. Some people considered it a big controversy that you could trick the system like this, but Car and Driver showed more recently how you could trick the systems in 17 different vehicles — any vehicle with an ADAS can be tricked.
There is a flip side to the meme video above as well, though. Tesla Autopilot does get far more positive attention than other systems as well — from Tesla fans, YouTubers, bigger media outlets, etc. Part of that is just because the brand is so popular (and Elon Musk is a known meme lord), and part is because Tesla rolls out the most advanced features from time to time. Now, the argument for why Tesla Autopilot deserves more scrutiny is embedded in that as well. The argument is that Tesla Autopilot is so good that it gets a lot of hype that makes people think it’s even better than it is. This, as the argument goes, leads people to be too complacent and not supervise the car as well as it should when the ADAS (Autopilot) is in action.
Presumably, the NHTSA investigation is looking into whether Tesla’s system is misleading anyone or is dramatically flawed somewhere. Again, when you look at the Car and Driver analysis, or any review of a car’s ADAS system, you can find several places where the ADAS is not perfect (if any were, we’d have robotaxis) and several places where it’s clear a driver should be ready to take over rather than just assume the vehicle will do what it needs to do. As an owner of a Tesla who has tested out other systems, I don’t see Tesla Autopilot as lacking adequate warnings, or warnings that other systems don’t lack, and I don’t feel like it misleads me or others to think it can do everything perfectly and doesn’t need to be monitored. In fact, the system goes out of its way to remind the driver many times and in many ways to pay the F attention — to the point that it’s even annoying. Tesla has added various reminders, notifications, and takeover procedures over the years, and I think some of these have come from NHTSA feedback while others have come from Tesla’s own engineers dreaming up new ideas. In any case, though, my impression is the warnings are more abundant and stronger than they are with other automotive ADAS. So, I am not expecting any huge surprises from the NHTSA.
I do think that some people can see hype about Autopilot/FSD on YouTube and social media and come to the conclusion that it’s better than it is. And that can lead to some people being careless. However, I don’t see that as a system error at all, and I think Tesla’s notification systems are so strong in part to try to ensure any such people get a different impression when they get in the car and start using Autopilot. But if the last year has shown me anything, it’s that there’s enormous human potential to avoid warnings, avoid common sense, avoid reality, believe what they want to believe, and do something stupid. People shouldn’t be watching movies while they are supposed to be monitoring the car while an ADAS is active, and I don’t think the NHTSA is going to find that there’s a flaw in the Tesla Autopilot system that makes people think that they can. (In fact, if we want to go there, note that Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu are disabled in the Tesla infotainment system when the vehicle is in Drive.) People shouldn’t rely on any ADAS to get them home safely while they are sleepy or drunk, and I don’t see it as logical for anyone driving a Tesla to think that’s the case any more than someone driving a Ford with Blue Cruise or a Cadillac with Super Cruise would think so.
At some point, as Jennifer Sensiba is good at pointing out, you can’t completely correct for stupid or stop people from doing stupid things, and regulators and society have to settle for that. You can’t make sure no one is going to abused Autopilot, just as you can’t make sure no one is going to abuse ProPilot. That doesn’t mean the NHTSA should or will come in and shut down all ADAS in cars around the US, let alone one of the best ones, so I don’t expect the Tesla haters out there who are hoping the NHTSA will shut down Tesla Autopilot are going to get what they want. Either way, though — people, be careful.