German officials call Tesla Autopilot a "traffic hazard"

October 10, 2016

In the year since Tesla Autopilot debuted, it's acquired plenty of fans and foes. In the former column, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, hackers, and this guy. In the latter, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Transportation Safety Board, and Germany.

Germany's Federal Highway Research Institute is assessing Autopilot for the country's Transportation Ministry, and late last week, portions of the Institute's preliminary report were discussed in Der Spiegel. The report went so far as to call Autopilot a "considerable traffic hazard".

The Institute notes that its tests of Autopilot are ongoing, and it hasn't reached final conclusions. However, the researchers have identified at least three troublesome flaws in the software:

1. Autopilot's alert system doesn't adequately notify drivers when it finds itself in a situation that it can't handle.

2. Autopilot's rear sensors don't scan far enough behind the car when it's attempting to overtake a slower-moving vehicle. So, Autopilot might not detect a fast-moving car or truck that's approaching in the passing lane, which could cause a rear-end collision when the Tesla shifts lanes to overtake. The Tesla might also not get far enough past the overtaken vehicle before cutting back in.

3. Autopilot's emergency braking system is inadequate. (That accusation seems a bit shocking, since the Model S in particular has aced safety tests. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has yet to assess Autopilot, which includes emergency braking, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recommended the forward collision warning system on the most recent Tesla vehicles that it's evaluated.)

It's unclear when the agency came to these conclusions--specifically, whether the tests were conducted before or after Autopilot 8.0 was published last month. That update may have addressed some of these concerns, particularly those having to do with overtaking and emergency braking. 

Germany's Transport Minister, Alexander Dobrindt, has said that he doesn't want to force Tesla owners to stop driving their vehicles--at least not until the Institute finishes its analysis. 

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