While Tesla has recently advertised that it is on the cusp of self-driving vehicles, their “Autopilot” systems have been engineered into cars. The term Autopilot may be a bit of a misnomer because Tesla says that it always advises drivers to remain in control of their vehicles. Yet, the system only detects when modest steering force is applied to the steering wheel. This means that the system itself cannot completely ascertain when its driver has gone hands-off and warn them to place their hands back onto the steering wheel. Already, several crashes have occurred where the NTSB has declared that the Autopilot system was partly at fault.
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Reuters reports that a Democratic Senator has said that Tesla needs better safeguards to prevent drivers from falling asleep behind the wheel.
Senator Ed Markey (D – Massachusetts) asked Tesla, Inc. to disable its “Autopilot” driver-assistance system. He asked that it be disabled until new safeguards to prevent drivers from falling asleep were installed.
Markey cited YouTube videos and press reports that suggested that drivers could literally fall asleep at the wheel and travel long distances without touching the steering wheel.
He also cited a local news report that stated a driver had fallen asleep behind the wheel and the Tesla he was riding in drove 14 miles on Autopilot. Other videos, which have been unconfirmed, appear to show drivers asleep while driving.
James Owens, acting NHTSA Chief, said that the agency would be in touch with Tesla regarding the matter.
In September, the NTSB said the Autopilot design was a key factor in a crash that occurred in January 2018 where a Tesla Model S crashed into a parked fire truck on a California highway.
Tesla’s Autopilot has been engaged in at least three crashes which were fatal. Two crashes remain under investigation by both the NHTSA and NTSB.