Tesla appears to be shifting its position on whether Autopilot drivers should be monitored with an in-car camera to ensure that they are alert and safe.
Tesla (TSLA) owners shared photos of a new version of Tesla software on social media on Thursday, allowing the camera above the rear-view mirror to detect and alert driver inattention while Autopilot is engaged. Tesla previously opposed camera monitoring, instead of relying on detecting torque on the steering wheel to determine whether or not a driver was present.
Tesla has installed a cabin-facing camera near the rear-view mirror that it claims will be used to record short video clips after collisions or when the emergency braking system is activated. According to the Model 3 owner’s manual, the camera feature is turned off by default in the United States. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, previously stated that the camera is “meant for vandalism monitoring in a robotaxi future.” He also mentioned video conferencing as a future Tesla feature.
Musk and Tesla have long outlined a grand vision for electric vehicles, which includes self-driving features that will transform the vehicles into robotaxis capable of making $30,000 in gross profit per vehicle. The robotaxi and video conferencing functions, however, have yet to reach customers.
Instead, using the camera to monitor driver alertness would bring Tesla closer to critics and industry peers.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has called for safety regulations for driver assist systems like Autopilot, which are not regulated by the US government. Except for Tesla, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents much of the auto industry, released principles for driver assist systems like Autopilot last month. For driver monitoring systems, the principles recommended that an in-vehicle camera be considered.
Tesla drivers are more distracted when they use Autopilot, a driver-assist system designed to steer the car and keep up with traffic, according to an MIT study released last fall. While using Autopilot, Tesla has always advised drivers to stay alert, keep their hands on the wheel, and be ready to take control of the vehicle at any time.
Despite these warnings, an MIT study discovered that when Autopilot was active, drivers looked away from the road more often. Several high-profile fatal crashes have occurred in which Tesla drivers using Autopilot appeared to be paying insufficient attention to the road.
There have also been instances of drivers flagrantly disobeying Tesla’s rules and exiting the driver’s seat while the vehicle is in motion. A man was arrested earlier this month for riding in the backseat of his Tesla while Autopilot was turned on. His Tesla was towed away after he was charged with two counts of reckless driving.
According to autonomous driving experts, using an in-car camera to ensure that drivers are behind the wheel and paying attention could make roads safer for everyone. In-car cameras are used by Tesla competitors such as GM and Ford to monitor their driver-assist systems.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment, and it generally avoids professional news outlets. Tesla’s software update, which includes the driver monitoring system, does not appear to have gone out widely yet.
However, previous reports and statements from Musk have indicated strong opposition to driver monitoring systems.
Tesla engineers discussed adding eye tracking to Autopilot, according to a 2018 Wall Street Journal report, but the idea was rejected due to costs and concerns that the technology was ineffective or would irritate drivers with alerts. “Eyetracking rejected for being ineffective, not for cost,” Musk tweeted in response to the story.
One of Tesla’s partners has previously criticized the company’s approach to driver assistance systems. Mobileye, which had provided critical technology for Autopilot and is now an Intel subsidiary, stopped working with Tesla in 2016.
“It’s not enough to tell the driver you need to be alert. You must explain to the driver why he or she should be cautious; this isn’t just legalese “In 2016, shortly after the first high-profile Autopilot death, Mobileye founder Amnon Shashua said at an event.