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Tesla drivers become ‘inattentive’ when using Autopilot, study finds | Engadget

Tesla may soon launch its latest FSD (full self-driving) Autopilot to a wide group of drivers, and US safety authorities aren’t that happy about it. They have reason to be concerned, according to a new MIT study seen by TechCrunch. The researchers studied glance data and found that drivers become more inattentive when using Tesla’s Autopilot system.  

“Visual behavior patterns change before and after [Autopilot] disengagement,” according to the study. “Before disengagement, drivers looked less on road and focused more on non-driving related areas compared to after the transition to manual driving. The higher proportion of off-road glances before disengagement to manual driving were not compensated by longer glances ahead.”

Visual behavior patterns change before and after AP disengagement. Before disengagement, drivers looked less on road and focused more on non-driving related areas compared to after the transition to manual driving. The higher proportion of off-road glances before disengagement to manual driving were not compensated by longer glances ahead.

The fact that drivers may not pay as much attention to the road when using Autopilot is not exactly a shocker. What’s new is that the researchers were able to see exactly where drivers were looking when the autopilot was engaged versus when it’s disengaged.

Off-road glances were directed downwards and toward the center stack region, so they “were presumably non-driving related.” Rather, looking in those directions is typically associated with activities like glancing down at a smartphone or interacting with the center-stack infotainment touchscreen. Those were often longer with Autopilot engaged and far more frequent than off-road glances in manual driving, according to the paper. 

Despite the name, Tesla’s FSD (full self-driving) Autopilot is merely a driver assist system and far from being fully autonomous. As such, it requires that drivers keep their hands on the wheel and remain fully alert, but Tesla doesn’t use cameras or other means to monitor the alertness part. 

The latest version, 10.0.1, supposedly makes more confident decisions on the road, but has so far only rolled out to a relatively small group of beta testers. Tesla plans to roll it out more widely starting September 24th, though, and may release it to all Autopilot FSD EVs, pending a seven day trial that will track owner behavior. 

The new release could pit Tesla against US regulators, however. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) head Jennifer Homendy recently said that Tesla shouldn’t release the latest software update until it can address “basic safety issues.” She also wasn’t thrilled with Tesla essentially beta-testing upgrades on public streets.

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