US Cracks Down on Device That Fools Tesla Autopilot

A federal car-safety agency says a device that prevents Tesla’s Autopilot from warning drivers to keep their hands on the wheel is unsafe and has banned its sale in the US.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a cease-and-desist order against the maker of the Autopilot Buddy on Tuesday, June 19. The agency announced that the company has until June 29 to certify that all US marketing, sales and distribution of the device has ended.

The $199 device, advertised as a “Tesla Autopilot Nag Reduction Device,” clamps on to the steering wheel to prevent the Autopilot system from detecting that the driver’s hands are off the wheel. Autopilot can steer a car under some conditions but is not designed for hands-free driving, so it automatically alerts drivers when their hands aren’t on the wheel.

Autopilot has faced controversy over some highly publicized crashes that occurred while it was in use, including two fatal accidents, as well as drivers’ claims that they had fooled the warning mechanism. One video showed an orange wedged into a vehicle’s steering wheel.

Tesla warns drivers that Autopilot isn’t a self-driving system and makes them acknowledge this each time they turn on the feature, but critics say the company’s marketing is misleading. Tesla’s main page devoted to Autopilot refers to “Full Self-Driving Hardware on All Cars” and “Full Self-Driving Capability,” though it also includes disclaimers about the current system’s limitations.

Last month, two consumer advocacy groups, the Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog, asked the US Federal Trade Commission to investigate how Tesla advertises Autopilot.

Autopilot’s attention issue is part of a larger debate about semi-autonomous car features, which take care of some driving tasks but still require drivers to pay attention to the road. Driver distraction is already a growing problem in the age of mobile devices and short attention spans. Self-driving car experts say staying alert is harder when some parts of driving are automated.

The challenge of using automation for safety while preventing it from making drivers complacent is likely to grow as automakers and aftermarket vendors introduce more driver assistance features, especially lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control. Some companies are taking different steps toward driver monitoring that might be harder to fool. Cadillac’s highly automated Super Cruise system comes with an interior camera that monitors the driver’s eye movements.

As of Wednesday, the website for Autopilot Buddy noted that no orders were being accepted from within the US but shoppers could get on a wait list for US orders.

The site also says the $199 device is not intended for hands-off driving and the driver’s hands have to remain on the wheel. The site also has a small note saying, “Autopilot Buddy is for Track Use Only.” A lengthy disclaimer says buyers agree not to hold the vendor, Dolder, Falco and Reese Partners LLC, responsible for any accidents caused by the device.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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