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'Smart' semi-autonomous cars lack intelligence

The tech and automotive worlds were abuzz in 2015 when revolutionary electric automaker Tesla publicly released its "Autopilot" feature. A first-of-its-kind technology, it allowed cars to drive and park semi-autonomously. In the three and a half years since its launch, software and hardware updates have added more features like lane changes, freeway navigation, parallel parking and others.

But Tesla's Autopilot feature may not be all it's cracked up to be. Consumer reports recently tested the newly updated "Navigate on Autopilot" driving system. It found "it doesn't work very well and could create safety risks for drivers."

Rolling out new features

Added in late 2018, Tesla designed Navigate on Autopilot to add more skills to its already-incorporated Autopilot feature. Aside from controlling speed, avoiding tailgating and keeping the vehicle centered in the lane, an April update now allows the vehicle to change lanes without the input of a driver. This is a feature Ars Technica calls "an important step in Tesla's plan to develop fully self-driving cars."

Feature full of flaws

The new feature is supposed to be a leap forward in technological advancement, but Consumer Reports describes it as clunky and possibly dangerous.

The consumer-advocacy magazine found that Teslas operating with Navigate on Autopilot often cut off other cars. Sometimes Teslas even violated state laws by passing on the right. The test drivers frequently had to take control of the car to prevent Autopilot on Navigate from making critical mistakes.

Consumer Reports' senior director of auto testing Jake Fisher called the system "incredibly nearsighted." He chided it for not reacting to other vehicles' brake lights or blinkers and failing to anticipate other cars' moves.

"The system's role should be to help the driver, but the way this technology is deployed, it's the other way around," Fisher said.

Accidents have happened

Tesla's Autopilot feature has been implicated in at least four fatal accidents since 2016. In two of the accidents, Teslas in Autopilot collided with the broad side of 18-wheel tractor-trailers without slowing down.

The first crash with a tractor-trailers drew the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The subsequent investigation led the NTSB to outline seven safety recommendations which Tesla is yet to fully implement.

Staying safe

While new technology can be alluring, human judgement will keep you safe. If you drive a car with a semi-autonomous driving system, pay attention when the system is engaged. Use the same amount of attention that you would use if you were in total control.

If you specifically have a Tesla with Navigate on Autopilot, consider disengaging the automatic lane-change feature until updates make it safer.

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