With Autopilot active, study says Tesla drivers glance away from road more often

At a time when federal officials are scrutinizing the safety of Tesla Autopilot, new research sheds light on how the system is reshaping driver behavior.

When the driver-assist system is enabled, Tesla drivers’ eyes stray from the road more frequently and for longer periods of time compared with manual driving, according to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This is believed to be the first study that uses real-world driving data to measure how attentive Autopilot drivers are behind the wheel, and where they’re glancing besides the road ahead.

“This is the first time we can quantify the effects of automation, in this case specifically Tesla Autopilot, on how drivers pay attention,” said Pnina Gershon, MIT research scientist and one of the study’s authors. “Essentially what it shows is when Autopilot is engaged, we see glances off the road that are longer.”

The findings arrive as NHTSA investigates 11 crashes in which Autopilot-enabled vehicles struck stopped emergency vehicles. Tesla has until Oct. 22 to submit a written response and data requested by the federal regulator.

That investigation represents a narrow subset of broader safety concerns with Autopilot. In investigations of multiple fatal crashes involving Autopilot-enabled vehicles, the National Transportation Safety Board has cited inadequate driver monitoring and a lack of safeguards with Autopilot that could thwart foreseeable misuse. Further, the NTSB has warned that such Level 2 automated-driving systems can lead to human overreliance, a condition it calls “automation complacency.”

Tesla-related misuses have been exhaustively cataloged on YouTube, with drivers reading the newspaper or sitting in the rear seats showcasing brazen disregard for the driving task. Autopilot is a driver-assist system that requires a human operator who is responsible for vehicle operations at all times. Tesla’s owner manuals even state that drivers need to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.

But not all inattention is so egregious. The MIT researchers sought to quantify levels of attentiveness by analyzing glance patterns during the time in which Tesla drivers manually disengaged the Autopilot system and retook control.

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