Tesla owners shared photos on social media Thursday of a new version of Tesla software that enables the camera above the rear-view mirror to detect and alert driver inattentiveness while Autopilot is engaged. Previously, Tesla pushed back at the idea of camera monitoring, instead relying on detecting torque on the steering wheel to determine if a driver was engaged.
Tesla has included an in-car cabin-facing camera near the rear-view mirror that it says is for recording short video clips following crashes, or when the emergency braking system activates. The camera feature is off by default in the US, according to the Model 3's owners manual. Tesla CEO Elon Musk also said last year that the camera was "meant for vandalism monitoring in a robotaxi future." He's also described video conferencing as a future feature for Teslas.
Musk and Tesla have long described a grand vision for the electric cars, including autonomous driving features that will turn the vehicles into robotaxis that make $30,000 gross profit per car. But neither the robotaxi function, nor the video conferencing function, have made it into customer hands.
Using the camera to monitor driver attentiveness instead would bring Tesla more in line with both critics and its industry peers.
Driver assist systems like Autopilot are not regulated by the US government, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has called for safety regulations for such systems. Last month the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents much of the auto industry with the exception of Tesla, released principles for driver assist systems like Autopilot. The principles called for considering an in-vehicle camera for driver monitoring systems.
An MIT study released last fall found that Tesla drivers are more distracted when they use Autopilot, a driver-assist system that's designed to steer the car and keep up with traffic. Tesla has always told drivers to remain attentive, keep their hands on the wheel and be prepared to take control of the vehicle at any time while using Autopilot.
Despite these warnings the MIT study found that drivers glanced more frequently away from the road when Autopilot was active. There have been several high-profile fatal crashes in which Tesla owners using Autopilot seemed to not be paying sufficient attention to the road.
There have also been examples of drivers blatantly disregarding Tesla's guidelines and getting out of the driver's seat while the car is active. Earlier this month, the California Highway Patrol arrested a Bay Area man for riding in the backseat of his Tesla while Autopilot was active. Witnesses said the man traveled across the Bay Bridge in the backseat during one of the incidents.
He was charged with two counts of reckless driving, and his Tesla was towed from the scene.
Autonomous driving experts have said that using an in-car camera to ensure drivers are behind the wheel and paying attention could be a way to make roads safer for everyone. Tesla competitors such as GM and Ford use in-car cameras for driver monitoring of their driver assist systems.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment, and generally does not engage with the professional news media. Tesla's software update that includes the driver monitoring system does not appear to be widely distributed so far.
But reports and statements from Musk have indicated a staunch resistance to driver monitoring systems in the past.
A 2018 Wall Street Journal report said that Tesla engineers discussed adding eye tracking to Autopilot, but the idea was rejected because of costs and concerns the technology was ineffective or would irritate drives with alerts. Musk tweeted, in response to the story, that "Eyetracking rejected for being ineffective not for cost."
Tesla's approach to driver assist systems has been criticized before by one of its partners. Mobileye, now an Intel subsidary, which had provided critical technology for Autopilot, stopped working with Tesla in 2016.
"It's not enough to tell the driver you need to be alert. You need to tell the driver why to be alert, it's not only lawyer talk," Mobileye founder Amnon Shashua said in a 2016 event, shortly after the first high-profile Autopilot death.
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