It appears that the government is finally starting to realize some of the much deserved scrutiny that Tesla deserves for its claims to "full self driving" and its human beta testing of its Autopilot feature on unknowing everyday drivers.
On Wednesday, during a Commerce Committee hearing focused on self-driving vehicles called "Highly Automated Vehicles: Federal Perspectives on the Deployment of Safety Technology", the topic was broached in detail. During the hearing, companies like Tesla and Uber underwent sharp criticism from several senators, according to CNBC.
During the meeting, Senator Ed Markey slammed the NHTSA, asking what they were doing to prevent Tesla Autopilot "cheats" - people who rig their vehicles to enable Autopilot even if they don't have their hands on the wheel, as is required.
Markey said: “Tesla drivers have identified a variety of tricks to make Autopilot believe they are focused on the road even if they are literally asleep at the wheel. Alarmingly, you can go to YouTube right now and learn about some of these tricks.”
He pointed out several tricks people use, like affixing water bottles or other inanimate objects to their steering wheels to add weight to it, fooling the car into thinking the driver's hands are on the wheel.
Markey said of the tactics: “That’s not safe! Somebody’s gonna die!”
Market also repeatedly pressed NHTSA acting chief James Owens for details on how his agency would compel Tesla to fix the "cheat". Owens responded, promising to follow up on the issue and stating: “It is unfortunate when drivers misuse their vehicles and engage in unsafe behaviors.”
Market retorted: “I would urge you to do that very quickly. Tesla should disable Autopilot until it finds the problem, until it fixes the problem, until it can assure consumers who don’t own that vehicle that they are safe on the roads or sidewalks from an accident occurring.”
Markey also revealed that he sent a formal letter to Tesla this week, urging them to fix these autonomous "design defects".
As CNBC notes, "that letter is now in the committee’s records, and NHTSA is under pressure to deliver answers."
Chair of the committee, Sen. Roger Wicker, said of one crash by an Uber test vehicle: “Ms. Elaine Herzberg was tragically struck and killed by an Uber test vehicle while crossing the street. Records show that the vehicle detected Ms. Herzberg’s presence 5.6 seconds before the crash, but failed to brake. It is imperative that manufacturers learn from this incident and prevent similar tragedies from happening again.”
At the hearings, heads of both the NTSB and the NHTSA faced questions from senators who came off as exciting about the technology, but concerned about the issues and fatalities that have arisen from it thus far.
The NTSB is now urging the NHTSA to put conditions on developers that want to market and test semi or fully autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads. Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the NTSB said: “Whatever’s working right now is not working as well as we believe it should.”
You can watch a webcast of the full hearing here.