Is it possible to bypass a Tesla’s autopilot safety features and operate the vehicle without a driver? An April 2021 police report from Texas involving two men killed while operating a Tesla Model S in autopilot seems to suggest so. Could they have overridden the safety features and, if so, how did they do it?
It is possible to bypass the autopilot safety features designed to keep Tesla drivers focused on the road. The American nonprofit Consumer Report found that they could easily do so by using a quick and easy hack. Yet, their findings also note that Tesla is taking new precautions to improve the overall safety of their vehicles.
In response to growing concerns, Tesla has turned their attention to the infamous autopilot bypass. Their goal is to close up any loopholes and keep drivers from overriding the safety precautions. Let’s explore how drivers are managing to override features designed to make driving safer and also look into Tesla’s ongoing efforts to prevent drivers from bypassing their autopilot.
How Drivers are Bypassing Tesla’s Safety Features
Whether to test it out or to avoid the nagging quality of the vehicle’s safety reminders, many Tesla owners are bypassing their car’s built-in protections. Even just a quick YouTube search pulls up dozens of videos with tens of thousands of views explaining how you can override your Tesla’s safety features to operate autopilot mode without sitting in the driver’s seat.
While we in no way encourage unsafe driving practices, the basic process involves tricking the sensor into thinking that someone’s hand is still on the wheel. This allows autopilot mode to continue working and steer the car without someone in the driver’s seat. Consumer Report pulled off this hack using the following method:
- Initiate autopilot – After accelerating to 15 mph and turning on autopilot mode, they were able to dial their speed down to 0 using the speed control mechanism on the wheel and bring the car to a complete stop without turning off autopilot.
- Add weight to the steering wheel – The main safety feature that guarantees driver supervision measures tension on the steering wheel so that, if a driver’s hand is not kept on the wheel, the car will give off a flashing warning that grows into a beep. By attaching a small weight to the wheel, Consumer Report was able to bypass this feature and keep their car going without supervision.
- Accelerate using the speed control mechanism – Consumer Report increased their driving speed by using the speed control system on the vehicle’s wheel. As long as the driver’s seatbelt was attached, the car continued to follow the road and drive without a driver.
Despite being reckless, illegal, and life-threatening, the ease with which a driver could override their vehicle’s safety feature and operate a Tesla without supervision highlights that the company needs to take steps to ensure greater safety measures for their drivers and others on the road.
Following the April 2021 crash in Spring, Texas, involving a Tesla operated in autopilot mode, Tesla has stressed that their newest models are no longer fitted with radar systems and, instead, use an advanced camera system that senses whether a driver is present and engaged with the road.
The Ins and Outs of Tesla’s Autopilot Mode
In spite of mounting investigations, Tesla continues to stress that autopilot mode is “an advanced driver assistance system that enhances safety and convenience behind the wheel.” It comes as a standard feature for all new Tesla models and includes two packages, autopilot and a new fully self-driving capability, both of which include a host of safety features. Nonetheless, drivers have still easily bypassed the built-in safety features to cheat the autopilot.
- Auto-steer – Older models made use of a radar system that sensed other vehicles on the road; this has been replaced by a more advanced camera sensor system on newer models.
- Traffic-aware cruise control – This feature matches your speed to the same speed of other vehicles around you on the road.
Full Self-Driving Mode
- Navigation and automatic lane changes – The vehicle takes control and merges onto highways, navigates to your destination, changes lanes, takes exits, and controls the turn signal.
- Master parking lots – Make use of a mobile app or your electronic key to park the vehicle in tight spots, then summon it back out and around the parking lot so you never spend another second searching for where you parked.
As high-tech and futuristic as these features sound, Tesla has repeatedly pointed out that their auto-pilot and full self-driving modes are designed only to work if the car senses a driver behind the wheel, NOT if a driver bypasses their autopilot. They “require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.”
How Tesla is Responding to Driver Bypass
Immediately following the high-profile crash in Texas, Elon Musk was quick to assert that data from the crash showed that autopilot had not been engaged. This runs counter to the police report, which stated that the driver’s seat was empty upon inspection, hinting that the driver had bypassed the autopilot. Nonetheless, Tesla has gone ahead with their rollout of more advanced safety features to ensure that their consumer base stays safe behind the wheel. Some of these features include:
- New camera sensor technology – All new models come equipped with an onboard computer that utilizes 8 external cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors. Both Model Y and Model 3 have been upgraded with Tesla Vision, which uses neural net processing rather than radar.
- Automatic emergency breaking – When the vehicle senses an upcoming barrier, it automatically applies the breaks to prevent a collision.
- Collision warnings – All models are outfitted with side, front, and rear collision sensors that warn the driver when they are approaching an obstacle.
- Lane guidance – By making use of new camera sensors, all new Tesla models will come with corrective lane guidance that automatically steers the vehicle back onto the road if the car goes off track.
Tesla has also made it clear that models produced after 2014 can have their autopilot systems retrofitted with the most recent hardware upgrades and that any update to their software is automatically uploaded through over-the-air downloads.
Are Our Roads Safe?
It seems intuitive to doubt the safety of a self-driving car, but keep in mind that driver-assistance was originally developed to help drivers perform better on the road. Tesla acknowledges that their vehicles are not perfect and that a fully autonomous vehicle will only be possible after collecting billions of hours of user experience and data. Automotive regulators are working hard to assess Tesla’s safety claims, so no new features can be released to the public without a thorough vetting.
At the end of the day, our roads are no less safe with self-driving cars than they were before. It is not the car to blame but the driver. While it is still possible to bypass a Tesla’s autopilot safety precautions, automotive makers explicitly state that this is:
- Reckless to operate a car while not paying attention to the road
- Dangerous to other drivers
- Illegal in some states to operate autopilot via a bypass
It is still up to drivers to responsibly follow state and federal traffic laws while on the road.
As more reports come out about accidents caused by Tesla vehicles in autopilot mode, it is understandable that you would want to know more about how drivers bypass their vehicle’s safety measures. While it may have been easier to do so in the past, Tesla is working hard to improve its standards and keep drivers safe on the road.