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Tesla Drivers Using Autopilot Watch the Road Less, MIT Study Shows

2021 tesla model s plaid

Any news story with Tesla in the headline gets attention. So it’s not surprising crashes involving the company’s “Autopilot” function seem to get more news coverage than those in other makes.

A new study has now provided data on how drivers using Autopilot behave. Its conclusion may seem obvious: They remove their gaze from the road longer, and more often, than when not using it. That is, when a Tesla travels at a set speed but keeps itself within lane markings and a safe distance from cars ahead, drivers’ attention can—and will—wander.
Its conclusion is stark: When Autopilot was active, “drivers looked less on-road and focused more on non-driving related areas, compared to after the transition to manual driving.” Moreover, the longer time drivers spent looking away from the road in front of them “were not compensated by longer glances ahead” when they did return to watching the road.

The tricky part comes when individual ADAS functions are integrated into a system offering the possibility for the car to pilot itself on highways for longer periods without driver intervention. The ultimate goal is “hands off” capability as well as the existing “feet off” capability. But if drivers don’t have to use hands or feet to drive, how do we ensure they remain attentive enough to retake control when the car needs to hand back control because its algorithms don’t know what to make of new sensor data?

“All the hands-free systems coming to market—including GM’s Super Cruise, Ford’s BlueCruise, Nissan’s ProPilot 2.0—utilize infrared cameras to track driver head pose and eye gaze,” explained Sam Abuelsamid, a principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, who has long studied automated safety systems.

He ran down the different ways automakers try to keep drivers attentive once they no longer have to steer. Abuelsamid suggests such eye-tracking systems are “far superior to the steering-torque sensors used by hands-on systems including Tesla’s AutoPilot, Ford’s Copilot 360+, Nissan ProPilot, Volvo Drive Pilot” and others.

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