Weekly Brief: Tesla’s Self-Driving Features Just Plain Reckless

Ready or not, Tesla is ramping up efforts to deliver fully self-driving cars.

This week the carmaker will roll out its automated parking feature, which allows drivers to press a button on their smartphones when they enter a parking lot and summon their Tesla vehicles to their current location or to a designated pin. The car uses its Autopilot cameras to autonomously reverse out of its parking spot and navigate any curbs or cars in the parking lot en route to its assigned destination. The feature is dubbed Enhance Summon and has been available in Tesla’s Early Access program. Now any driver in the US with the Enhanced Autopilot or Full Self-Driving option can summon their cars like yo-yos on a string.

On the one hand, this doesn’t matter very much. The feature only works if drivers are within 150 feet of their vehicles and the cars creep along so slowly in autonomous mode that they don’t save drivers any time. It may look cool to friends but, in terms of real ingenuity and technological steps forward, there isn’t much here. On the flip side, this is significant because it shows that Tesla has no intention of biding its time when it comes to delivering autonomy. To the contrary, it plans to plow full-steam ahead, whether or not its technology is ready for it let alone federal and local regulators, drivers and the general public.

In addition to the Enhance Summon announcement, Tesla also updated its navigation feature last week so that its vehicles can now change lanes in Autopilot mode without first receiving permission from drivers. Drivers used to have to press a button on the steering wheel to confirm a suggested lane change; now the car will take the initiative on its own and won’t say anything about it unless the driver wants it to. That means that Autopilot is looking and acting more and more like a fully self-driving feature. It can steer, slow down, speed up and change lanes from the time a driver gets on the highway to the time they depart — all without any driver engagement.

This would be (and maybe should be) illegal if it weren’t for some clever language that Tesla uses. It notes that its Navigate on Autopilot “does not make a car autonomous” because … wait for it … it only works if both of the drivers’ hands are on the steering wheel. Therein lies the problem. Tesla seems to think that if a drivers’ hands are on the steering wheel, it guarantees that drivers are paying attention to what’s happening on the road and can step in to rescue the self-driving tech if and when it screws up. That assumption is ludicrous, not just because we live in a 21st Century society addicted to distraction but because Tesla drivers on Autopilot have already proven time and again that the feature encourages them to zone out. Let us not forget the Tesla driver in Florida who failed to pick out the semi-truck slashing across his lane because he was watching a movie on his dashboard. His hands were on the wheel though, so everything is okay right?

Wrong. He was the first Tesla driver to die while Autopilot was engaged. Indeed, there’s something highly hypocritical about telling drivers that their cars can all but drive themselves, then dismiss responsibility for the feature because drivers are still supposed to be in control. Then, as if that weren’t enough, turn around and release more Atari games that your drivers can play on their dashboards. Last week Tesla added two new Atari games — Super Breakout and 2048 — to its lineup of Atari games that Tesla owners can control with their steering wheels.

Granted, these games only work while the car is parked but the point stands. When you’re gamifying everything, when you’re hyping self-driving features with hyperbolic tweets from Elon Musk and when you’re pushing out updates before drivers and regulators understand the nuance of what you’re doing, it’s fundamentally dangerous and irresponsible.

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