Tesla is coming under intense fire after announcing it will no longer use radar sensors on its two mainstream product lines, the Model 3 and Model Y, relying solely on camera-based technology for their semi-autonomous Autopilot systems — and ultimately their Full Self-Driving technology.
On Friday, Consumer Reports weighed into the fray, saying that it would no longer give a coveted “Top Pick” rating to versions of the Model 3 produced after April 27, when Tesla made the switch in technology. The automaker’s two smaller models also were downgraded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a result of the change. Other safety groups are expected to follow.
“It is extremely rare for an automaker to remove safety features from a vehicle during a production run, even temporarily, but this isn’t the first time that Tesla has done this,” Jake Fisher, a senior director of Consumer Reports, said in a statement.
Officials with the publication also cautioned that consumers could become confused about the capabilities of the Model 3 as a result of the change.
Autopilot a subject of confusion and controversy
Confusion about the Autopilot system, in particular, has been an ongoing problem. Safety advocates claim it has led to some owners taking excessive risks — such as texting, watching videos, even sleeping behind the wheel — resulting in crashes, injuries and even some fatalities.
Tesla, critics say, has not helped the situation. Though the automaker’s website tells drivers to keep hands on the wheel, CEO Elon Musk has frequently hyped Autopilot’s features, and the latest update has been referred as having “full” self-driving capabilities.
Several recent crashes are currently undergoing review by safety regulators including both the National Transportation Safety Board and NHTSA.
The latter agency on Wednesday said it would no longer describe the Tesla Models 3 and Y as offering some advanced safety features, such as forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning — even though Tesla claims those functions will continue to be available using a modified, camera-only sensing system.
Not the only change
Tesla’s latest move has received widespread criticism from consumer and safety groups. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said it plans to reevaluate the two vehicles and will remove its own Top Safety Pick+ ratings for the Model 3 and Model Y.
Tesla representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the change in technology. The automaker did issue a statement earlier in week acknowledging that some functions may temporarily be limited. These include Autopilot’s ability to keep a vehicle centered in its lane and a parking assist feature. But the carmaker also said they would be restored using over-the-air updates of software “in the weeks ahead.”
Tesla did bow to some other concerns about the safety of Autopilot, however. The automaker is adding a driver monitoring system designed to ensure motorists are awake, alert and paying attention to the road while the system is operating.
The announcement comes while federal authorities are investigating a fatal crash in which it was reported the driver may have flipped over into the back seat. Other crashes have been blamed on motorists falling asleep or watching videos when Autopilot either malfunctioned or issued a warning for them to retake control.
Catching up to the competition
Competing systems, such as General Motors’ Super Cruise, already monitor motorists and will take a series of steps to keep them focused on driving, even deactivating and coming to a complete stop.
The lack of a monitoring system was one of the reasons why Consumer Reports recently rated GM’s Super Cruise as significantly better than Tesla Autopilot.
Tesla has long taken a minimalist approach to sensing systems, even while boasting that Autopilot is the most capable technology of its type. But that has created problems, including the latest downgrades, as well as challenges in delivering the completely hands-free version CEO Musk has been promising for several years.
Competitors generally use broader suites of camera, sonar, radar and other sensors. Lucid, the startup planning to launch the all-electric Air sedan later this year, will be the first with a full-range lidar system. Tesla has long said it wouldn’t need the 3D laser technology but prototypes have recently been spotted with distinctive lidar domes. Some observers believe that the automaker has finally recognized it cannot reach the level of autonomy it’s promised without adding lidar.