A fatal Tesla Model S crash earlier this week in Texas sparked discussions over whether or not the EV's Autopilot system might have led to the accident.
Local authorities claimed no one was sitting in the driver's seat at the time of the crash, pushing them to believe it was in Autopilot mode. Even though Tesla's CEO Elon Musk piped up to say the EV couldn't have been on Autopilot if no one was in the driver's seat, two separate investigations led by the NHTSA and the NTSB are taking place to determine the reason behind the accident.
Taking matters into their own hands, two Consumer Report (CR) engineers decided to see if a Tesla Model Y's Autopilot system could be duped into driving when no one was sitting in the driver's seat. It turns out, it can.
First things first — the CR engineers strongly urge no one to try this stunt at home. They are trained test drivers who carried out this experiment on CR's private test track and didn't go past 30 mph (48 km/h).
How to trick Tesla's Autopilot system
Now, how did they do it? After engaging the EV's Autopilot system on the track, they placed a small weighted chain on the steering wheel so that it would believe someone was holding it, then one of the engineers slid across to the front passenger seat. (Opening any doors would immediately disengage the Autopilot system.) He reached over and used the steering wheel's speed dial to get the vehicle moving, which it did.
"The car drove up and down the half-mile lane of our track, repeatedly, never noting that no one was in the driver’s seat, never noting that there was no one touching the steering wheel, never noting there was no weight on the seat," Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing said.
"It was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards, which we proved were clearly insufficient," he continued.
So it seems it is possible to dupe a Tesla into driving on Autopilot without anyone at the wheel. This was also previously proven last year when someone posted a video on YouTube of themselves jumping out of a moving Tesla while it was on Autopilot — another stunt not to try at home.
It goes to show that this is possible, but you'd have to really be trying to trick Tesla's Autopilot in order to carry such stunts out. As CR pointed out, their latest stunt wasn't made to provide insight into the recent Texas crash, but it does demonstrate how much attention automakers need to put into their Autopilot systems' safety.