The Trashing of Tesla Autopilot by Euro NCAP

Tesla Autopilot is so good it's bad 1 photo
Photo: Tesla
Late last week, European safety watchdog Euro NCAP released its findings about the nature of automated driving technologies (ADS). It is the first time a global organization conducts a comprehensive assessment of ADS, and the results are surprising, to say the least.
Automation is a reality we can’t escape, one that has been around for a few years and it’s only to become more widespread in the decades ahead. It is at the same time an evolution the automobile companies fail to properly explain, and customers fail to properly understand.

This lack of understanding is not as dangerous when dealing with automated technologies like emergency braking or adaptive cruise control. It is, however, dangerous when the array of ADS deployed into a car is so complex that customers mistake it for a fully self-driving car.

During the tests, the Euro NCAP reviewed the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, DS 7 Crossback, Ford Focus, Hyundai NEXO, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Nissan LEAF, Tesla Model S, Toyota Corolla and the Volvo V60.

The automated systems that were tested in these cars were adaptive cruise control, lane centering and speed assist.

Overall, the results were satisfying. In Tesla’s case, they were disastrous. And not because ADS don't work, but because apparently they work too well.

A Poor Choice of Name

All the cars tested by Euro NCAP feature the systems mentioned above, nicely wrapped under a name meant to resonate with the respective carmaker’s history, nomenclature or whatever. In Tesla’s case, the name for the ADS systems is Autopilot. And that’s a problem.

According to Euro NCAP, the name Autopilot “implies a fully automated system where the driver is not required.” A thing the system is not.

Autopilot is a software suite that can drive the Tesla cars on their own, but only in certain conditions - for example on a highway - and only under driver supervision. The fact that it was a poorly chosen name was somewhat admitted by Tesla itself following the numerous crashes at the beginning of the year, which were caused in part by the driver's overwhelming confidence that the system can completely look after itself.

No Geofencing

Euro NCAP criticizes the fact that despite Autopilot being described in the handbook as “intended only for use on Highways and limited access roads” it is not geofenced, meaning it can be deployed wherever the driver sees fit.

Even when Autopilot detects and requires human input, the fact that “gentle touch of the steering wheel“ is all it takes to keep Autopilot engaged and no further effort must be made to convince it the driver is in control.

There is, however, the “one-strike-you-are-out” that allows Autopilot to remain off for the duration of a journey if the driver doesn’t nudge the steering wheel from time to time.

Late or No Warning in Cut-In and Cut-Out Scenarios

When put through its paces in scenario mode, Autopilot yielded mixed results. The Traffic Aware Cruise Control feature was able to stop the car before impacting a stationary vehicle ahead, as it did in the slower moving and braking lead vehicle scenarios.

During cut-in and cut-out scenarios, however, the system provided very late or no response, while at the same time issuing very late or no warning to the driver.

Unwilling to Let Go

The AutoSteer feature of the Autopilot was found to have a mind of its own. The feature is so good that gives the impression the car is in complete control, and the driver is not needed. It’s the same impression the system itself seems to be living under, as it initially resists driver input when it is provided and only then deactivates driver assistance.

Drivers Out of the Loop

The steering support provided by Autopilot prevents the driver from having a say in where the car is heading at certain times. Tests have shown the system will handle all the steering required in an S-bend scenario. When the steering limits are reached, the car slows down to make the turn, also eliminating the need for a driver.

When it has no lane markings to guide itself, Autopilot will try to steer a safe path, but “with the sensors the Tesla has, this is nearly impossible to do reliably.”

The fact that Autopilot is apparently capable of performing these tasks comes in contradiction with how the role of the driver is described in the handbook, leaving drivers confused on what exactly the system can do and what the role of the human is in all of this.

Bad Advertising

The confusion in the drivers’ heads as to what Autopilot is exactly capable of also stems from the marketing videos shown by Tesla.

Even though Autopilot is not entirely autonomous, many “official videos show the car apparently driving autonomously,” creating further confusion.

All in all, it would appear the tests conducted by Euro NCAP yielded the following results: Tesla's Autopilot is a great technology, perhaps the most advanced ADS on the market, but so miserably explained and advertised that is causing drivers to become over-confident it can handle even the trickiest of situations.

Euro NCAP has currently only tested ADS, and for the moment has not announced a rating system for them. But as these technologies evolve, we expect to see star-based rating or something similar for ADS as well.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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