Tesla drivers take their eyes off the road when on autopilot, study finds

Credit: drive.com.au

A landmark study into driver behaviour shows Tesla owners have blind faith in autonomous technology rather than watching the road ahead.

Cars that do some of the driving for us – but are not yet completely autonomous – are at risk of turning us into dangerous drivers, a landmark study in the US has found.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied driver behaviour in Tesla electric cars equipped with the optional “auto pilot” function, found owners placed a dangerous over-reliance on the technology – either because they had blind faith or misunderstood the limitations.

While the study noted Tesla is “considered to be one of the most capable systems commercially available,” researchers found a number of high-profile crashes have occurred within the normal operating parameters of the technology.

Furthermore, numerous drivers have placed so much faith in the technology they have been stopped and arrested by police in the US for ‘driving’ from the back seat.

“For example,” the report said, “there is evidence that drivers may not be using (auto pilot) as recommended – they become less attentive and relax control.

“This change in behaviour could be caused by a misunderstanding of what the system can do and its limitations, which is reinforced when automation performs relatively well,” the report found.

The study was released as US road safety regulators launch a probe into Tesla auto pilot crashes. Itshowed Tesla drivers were more inclined to look away from the road and fumble for things inside the cabin – such as a mobile phone – when the vehicle was in “auto pilot” mode.

In the semi-autonomous setting – which in good visibility can generally keep the car in its lane on a freeway and maintain a safe distance with the traffic ahead – about 22 per cent of Tesla drivers looked away from the road for longer than two seconds.

When they were not driving in “auto pilot” mode, only about 4 per cent of Tesla drivers looked away from the road for longer than two seconds.

The time limit of two seconds is estimated to be the maximum amount of time drivers can glance away from the road at modest speeds, while still having some peripheral vision and awareness of potential dangers.

The study has prompted renewed calls for all car companies – not only Tesla – to introduce technology that can detect and alert drowsy or distracted drivers.