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Tesla's Autopilot is losing out to Ford, GM in self-driving tech

Life in the fast lane, surely make you lose your mind

Tesla's Autopilot "self driving" technology has slipped to the middle of the active driver assist (ADA) software pack, says the nonprofit Consumer Reports, as companies like Ford and General Motors have overtaken the Musketeers in the automotive code lane.

Consumer Reports reached that conclusion after testing 12 different ADA systems, which it classified as technology that combines adaptive cruise control (ACC) and lane centering assistance (LCA) to take the stress out of driving on highways or in traffic jams.

The safest, CR said, is Ford's BlueCruise, followed by GM's Super Cruise and Mercedes-Benz Driver Assistance. Tesla, which the report said was "once an innovator in ADA," slipped from second place in 2020 to seventh this time around. 

The reason? Autopilot's basic functionality hasn't changed much since it came out, with Tesla instead tacking on new features instead of improving the bare necessities. 

"After all this time, Autopilot still doesn't allow collaborative steering and doesn't have an effective driver monitoring system. While other automakers have evolved their ACC and LCA systems, Tesla has simply fallen behind," said Jake Fisher, the nonprofit's senior director of auto testing.

How Autopilot lost the lead

All of the systems were evaluated on their overall performance, whether they keep drivers engaged, the ease of use, how smart the car is when conditions aren't safe, and what it does in case of an unresponsive driver. 

Aside from its overall performance, which CR rated highly, saying Autopilot had "smooth steering inputs and did a good job keeping the car at or near the center of the lane, on both straight and curvy roads," Tesla didn't perform well in other areas.

The biggest complaint centers around its driver monitoring system, which it found woefully inadequate, unlike its top-ranked ADA systems. 

BlueCruise, for example, uses direct driver monitoring systems (DDMS) equipped with infrared cameras to monitor driver's eyes and issues an audible alert within five seconds of the system detecting the pilot isn't watching the road. If attention isn't returned the vehicle begins to slow. 

"CR safety experts believe that this type of DDMS is key to the safety of any ADA system," the agency said in its report. 

Tesla, however, only requires a bit of pressure on the wheel for it to determine attention is being paid to the road. It didn't notify test drivers for 30 seconds, said CR manager of vehicle technology Kelly Funkhouser.

"That means the car could travel more than half a mile on a highway with hands off the wheel and the driver not paying attention at all — that's a risky situation," Funkhouser said. 

Tesla also ranked near the bottom in evaluations of the car's ability to determine when it's safe to use ADA, as test drivers were able to activate and use the system "even when there is only a single lane line down the middle of the road." 

In such situations Tesla Autopilot failed to keep the vehicle in the center of the lane, and often ended up too close to the unlined edge of the road., the report found. 

Autopilot woes don't end with CR tests

In June of last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a first-of-its-kind report on accidents involving ADA systems and found that Tesla Autopilot was involved in 70 percent of them.

The NHTSA has been investigating Tesla Autopilot safety issues since 2021, and last year upgraded its investigation to a formal engineering analysis that could serve as a precursor to a recall. 

Late last year it also emerged that the US Department of Justice was investigating Tesla for hype surrounding the alleged self-driving capabilities of Autopilot, which was recently backed up by an assertion from a former Tesla engineer that a 2016 self-driving demo video was faked by the company.

CR safety experts warn in the report that ADA systems aren't all created equally, and that many are designed in a way "that may lull drivers into complacency, giving them a false impression that the car is handling everything on their behalf." 

What ADA systems like Autopilot don't do is make cars self-driving "at all," Fisher said. "When automakers do it the right way, it can make driving safer and more convenient. When they do it the wrong way, it can be dangerous," he added without naming names. ®

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