German officials to Tesla drivers: Stop calling it an 'autopilot'

Germany's Federal Motor Authority is warning Tesla owners that their vehicles' 'autopilot' feature still requires the driver to pay attention to the road at all times.

Beck Diefenbach/Reuters
A Tesla Model S with version 7.0 software update containing Autopilot features is seen during a Tesla event in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2015.

One year after the introduction of Tesla's Autopilot function, Germany has issued a warning that the feature is meant to assist drivers, not replace them.

Autopilot is a driver assistance function that requires constant human attention, the Federal Motor Authority wrote in a letter to Tesla owners. Drivers must stay alert and in control of their vehicle at all times, according to German road traffic regulations.

The warning comes several months after the death of a Tesla Model S driver in Florida who crashed into a truck while using the Autopilot function. The accident raised doubts about the safety of the feature, calling into question the future of Autopilot and similar technology.  

Following the fatal crash in May, Tesla Motors was quick to point out in a blog post that the crash was "the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated," noting that "among all vehicles, in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles." 

But, as a Rand Corporation study concluded last April, "Autonomous vehicles would have to be driven hundreds of millions of miles, and sometimes hundreds of billions of miles, to demonstrate their reliability in terms of of fatalities and injuries." 

Meanwhile, Tesla Motors and various government agencies have grappled with how to prevent further fatalities. Another crash occurred in China in August, where it appeared that Tesla sales personnel and the company's Chinese-language website had described Autopilot as being fully autonomous. 

To underscore warnings from Tesla and Elon Musk, the company's co-founder, that the feature requires the driver's attention to operate safely, the company said in August that it would be adding a feature to Autopilot that would disable the self-steering function if a driver ignores warning cues. It began rolling out the 8.0 upgrade in late September.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported, currently, the Tesla system alerts drivers when their hands have been off the wheel too long, slowing the vehicle if the driver doesn't respond. But some users ignored 10 warning signs to keep their hands on the wheel in just one hour, demonstrating how some have become too trusting of the technology.

“I look down at my phone a little more than I used to,” Jason Hughes, a Tesla autopilot user from North Carolina, told The Wall Street Journal in July. “People are overly confident in it, in my opinion. They think it can do magical things, but it can’t go beyond what its sensors tell it.”

The system updates will give drivers more frequent alerts for drivers to put their hands on the steering wheel while traveling at higher speeds. If they ignore a third warning within one hour, the auto-steering feature will stop until the car is stopped and restarted.

But for intense critics of the autopilot feature, the Tesla 8.0 upgrade may not be enough. 

Research psychologists at NASA, who have studied the psychological effects of automation, have spoken out against the Autopilot function. As Stephen Edelstein reported for The Christian Science Monitor and GreenCarReports in August: 

Humans also have trouble paying attention when automated systems are running, NASA has found.

It is difficult for humans to monitor repetitive processes for a long time, a phenomenon known as the "vigilance decrement."

In other words, the more competent an automated system, the more likely the driver is to zone out.

That may be even more likely in automated cars, as the technology is often pitched to consumers—explicitly or implicitly—as a convenience to let them use time normally spent concentrating on the road for other tasks. 

Currently, the German Transport Ministry is conducting research on Autopilot in Tesla's Model S electric car, according to Reuters. An internal report viewed by German magazine Der Spiegel referred to the function as a "considerable traffic hazard." 

This report contains material from Reuters.

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