NHTSA and NTSB are still investigating the crash that killed two men in Spring, Texas, but central to the question of what happened is whether or not Tesla's Autopilot driver assist system can function without anyone in the driver's seat. Consumer Reports has now answered that question in a recent video. We'll save you the suspense: it can, but not without intentionally defeating Tesla's safety measures.
Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, took a 2020 Tesla Model Y to a closed test track to perform this experiment. He buckled the seat belt, sat on it, and then engaged Autopilot while he was still in the driver’s seat. He next set the speed to zero using the right spoke of the steering wheel and placed a small chain with two tape rolls on the left side of the steering wheel to mimic the force a driver's hand on the wheel would have, as the system demands.
Then Fisher moved to the front passenger seat and increased the speed using the right spoke again. He raised it to 30 mph, and the car drove as if there were somebody in the driver’s seat. If there is a seat sensor to detect if someone is there, it is not used by Autopilot, at least not after the system is engaged.
Fisher’s conclusion is that it is not difficult to trick Autopilot into driving with no one behind the wheel. Other systems, such as GM’s Super Cruise, use a seat sensor and rear-facing cameras to monitor if the driver is paying attention to the road. That said, no one's ever tried to defeat SuperCruise or another automakers' system like this, so we can't say whether or not Autopilot is the only system that can be tricked like this.
Consumer Reports' editor stressed the goal was not to try to clarify anything about the crash (investigators have not determined how or why the driver was found in the car's back seat). The main goal was to verify if the safeguards the system uses to prevent abuse work. The organization concludes that “driver monitoring systems need to work harder to keep drivers from using the systems in foreseeably dangerous ways.”
According to Fisher, Tesla has done a great job at making EVs popular, “but they seem to be using their customers as development engineers as they work on self-driving technologies, and they need to do a better job of keeping them safe.” That point is far from revelatory and something critics and fans of Tesla have been arguing about for years.