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Study: Tesla’s Autopilot feature decreases driver attention

If you go to the Tesla website, the company says that all its vehicles are equipped with Autopilot, a feature that “enables your car to steer, accelerate and brake automatically within its lane.” However, Tesla notes that “current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.”

According to a recently released study using on MIT Advanced Vehicle Technology data, despite Tesla’s important caveat about Autopilot’s capabilities, drivers are unable or unwilling to maintain “active driver supervision” once they’ve activated Autopilot.

Increasing distracted driving?

That indicates that the Autopilot feature might make distracted driving issues worse for Tesla owners and increase the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle accident, despite Tesla’s claim that drivers with the feature engaged have “close to 10x lower chances of being involved in an accident than the average car.“

The recent study involved recording Model S and Model X owners as they drove nearly 500,000 miles using Autopilot.

MIT researchers then analyzed the recordings to understand how drivers behaved with Autopilot engaged. The results are not encouraging.

Study findings

They found that drivers tended to look at things that aren’t related to driving more often and for longer. What were the drivers looking at? Much of the time, they were looking at the center display screen.

But their “off-road glances were longer with AP active than without.” The drivers also looked more frequently at things off-road that weren’t driving-related than they did with Autopilot off.

When drivers disengaged the controversial feature, their “visual behavior patterns” changed and their attention shifted back to the road and traffic.

A personal experience

The writer of an Electrek article on the study stated that he has used the feature over “tens of thousands of miles” and feels that Autopilot helps him “drive more safely,” but adds that he makes “a point to always pay attention to the road when I use the driver-assistance features.”

He also writes that “Tesla drivers should be careful not to become too complacent” when using Autopilot – a sentiment that has been applied to drivers of new vehicles equipped with safety technology designed to make driving safer, as long as drivers keep their attention focused on Los Angeles traffic, streets, traffic signals, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.