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Opinion: Consumer Reports’ Tesla Autopilot stunt crossed a line in an already-heated EV climate

Credit: Consumer Reports

Just recently, Consumer Reports published the results of a test it conducted at its private track to demonstrate just how “easy” it was to fool Tesla’s Autopilot system into operating without a driver behind the wheel. The magazine was successful in its aim, but it also demonstrated that it takes a very determined driver and an elaborate set of procedures to bypass Tesla’s driver-monitoring systems. 

Bypassing Tesla’s Active Safety Features: A Walkthrough

To accomplish its goals, Consumer Reports performed a series of blatantly illegal driving behaviors. The magazine’s team seemed to have buckled in the driver’s seatbelt without a person sitting in the seat. The driver, who was not actively belted in, then engaged Autopilot and reduced the system’s speed to zero. When the vehicle stopped, a weighted defeat device was placed on the Tesla’s steering wheel to simulate pressure from the driver’s hand. The driver then went over to the passenger seat and increased Autopilot’s speed, which enabled the vehicle to start moving again. Consumer Reports also made it a point to point out that the driver in its test did not open the vehicle’s doors, as that would disengage Autopilot. 

Overall, Consumer Reports tried to demonstrate that it was easy to fool Autopilot. Only it didn’t. The magazine instead provided a reasonably comprehensive guide on how to bypass several layers of Tesla Autopilot’s driver-monitoring systems. In its piece, Consumer Reports argued that this was proof that Tesla’s driver monitoring is inadequate since it does not use eye-tracking technology like those employed in GM’s Super Cruise (or Ford’s BlueCruise). While a valid argument, this does not excuse the magazine’s demonstration. Had Tesla employed eye-tracking technology, it would have been easy for Consumer Reports to use another creative trick to fool the system just the same. If the driver’s seat in the Tesla used sensitive weight sensors, it would have been “easy” to cheat the system with a weighted object as well (a literal sack of potatoes would do). 

Inasmuch as Autopilot’s driver monitoring systems are not foolproof, the contingencies in Super Cruise are likely not foolproof either, especially against a driver who’s deliberately bypassing a vehicle’s safety systems. Simply put, if a person is intentionally putting themselves in danger by participating in illegal driving behaviors, no driver-monitoring system would be enough. Nevertheless, the magazine suggested that when it comes to Tesla, the fact that Autopilot could be fooled by a defeat device and an elaborate set of procedures means that the EV maker is at fault. 

The Allure of Tribalism

Humans are tribal creatures by nature, as concluded in a 2019 study from the Association for Psychological Science. It is then no surprise that tribalism is prevalent everywhere. These tribes exist in numerous segments, from politics to consumer products. A look at the current political climate in countries such as the United States and the Philippines would show this. The years-long arguments against fans of iPhones and Android smartphones, or console and PC gamers, also hint at the notion that groups among similarly-minded individuals are bound to be formed. 

The auto sector is no stranger to tribes, as seen in the rivalry between enthusiasts of Ford and Chevrolet vehicles. The Mustang vs. Camaro debate is still ongoing today, as is the pickup rivalry between the Ford F-150 and the Chevy Silverado. Tribes also exist in the racing segment, with groups forming among enthusiasts of classic, big-engined American muscle cars and highly modified Japanese imports. Such is simply the nature of the car industry. There are rivalries among companies and those that support them. 

And for the most part, this is okay, especially if members of certain tribes are willing to coexist with the other. Tesla, however, has been caught in the crossfire more often than not. This has spawned a narrative that has become quite popular among the company’s critics and the mainstream media—that Tesla has a cult of followers that blindly worship Elon Musk, and actively attack anyone supporting any other vehicle that is not a Tesla. 

While fringe groups of aggressive Tesla fans exist, they certainly do not comprise the majority of the company’s supporters. During the Mach-E’s announcement, CEO Elon Musk actively supported the vehicle, even as classic Mustang fans threw up their hands and bashed the electric car in frustration at the notion of a crossover being given the classic sports car’s iconic name. Even today, when tempers in the EV community online are flared, numerous strong voices remain supportive of the Mach-E.  

A Fallacy of Composition

Consumer Reports’ Autopilot workaround test garnered a ton of attention, and it did not take long before Ford CEO Jim Farley retweeted the magazine’s findings, noting that Teslas will drive with no one in the driver’s seat. This is quite disingenuous, as vehicles have always been capable of operating without anyone in the driver’s seat, provided that drivers actively participate in illegal behaviors (such as putting a stone or a brick on the accelerator). Consumer Reports’ own staff also engaged queries from numerous Tesla supporters online to mixed results. Head of Connected and Automated Vehicles at Consumer Reports Kelly Frunkhouser, for one, stood her ground against critical comments against the magazine’s test to such a degree that she opted to mock a Tesla supporter for having only four followers on Twitter. The tweet was later deleted. 

The unfortunate thing in this whole scenario is the fact that some Tesla supporters actually had valid points against Consumer Reports’ Autopilot conclusions. Why was Autopilot not benchmarked against comparable systems like Super Cruise and regular cruise control? What are the safety stats of systems like Super Cruise? Why not cite data that shows how many accidents occur every year due to improper cruise control use? These are but a few of the questions that were brought to the magazine’s attention, but most were dismissed because Tesla fans are just a “cult” (queue in the Simpsons meme showing “weird nerds” shielding Elon Musk from “valid criticism”). 

In later tweets, Consumer Reports Head of Auto Testing Jake Fisher called back to the magazine’s interaction with Tesla back in the Model 3’s early days, when the vehicle initially missed the agency’s “Recommended” rating because of its brakes. In that instance, Tesla acknowledged the issue and rolled out a software update to address it, which resulted in the Model 3 later getting a “Recommended” rating. CR’s Autopilot demo is not the same, however, as this time around, the alleged faults of Tesla’s driver monitoring systems were intentionally being bypassed. This is not a “we observed something wrong that Tesla needs to fix” situation. This is an “Autopilot can be fooled if we try really hard and thus Tesla is at fault” situation. The Model 3 brakes were indeed valid criticism, and Tesla reacted as such. A series of procedures that bypass active safety features, maybe not so much. 

Skeletons in the Closet and a Familiar Game Plan

While Consumer Reports prides itself in its analysis of consumer products, the magazine has shown bias in the past. Consumer Reports may not want to talk about it much today, but back in the 80s and the 90s, the magazine ended up costing the United States one of its most affordable, fun, and popular off-roaders ever — the Suzuki Samurai. Better known in other territories as the Suzuki Jimny, the Samurai was introduced in the United States in 1985. 

By 1987, Suzuki was selling roughly two Samurais for every Jeep Wrangler sold. Consumer Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, then came out with a devastating report on the Samurai in June 1988, giving the small SUV a damning “Not Acceptable” rating due to its alleged rollover risk. Consumer Reports’ conclusions were serious, and it called for a recall of the 150,000 Samurais that were already sold in the United States. Consumer Reports also urged Suzuki to refund the vehicles’ purchase price to their owners since, as per statements from then-Consumers Union assistant director David C. Berliner, “The design is inherently flawed in the Samurai. It’s not something where they can make an adjustment, or put on some hardware in order to make a difference. As designed, the only solution is to take it off the market.” 

Suzuki fought Consumer Reports’ findings, and even safety watchdog group Center for Auto Safety noted that the Samurai’s rollover incidents were not unusual for such a popular vehicle. By then, the Samurai received 44 reports of rollovers with 16 deaths and 53 injuries, but Ron De Fore, director of public and consumer affairs for the safety agency, noted that such numbers were not too high considering that there are 150,000 of the SUVs on the road. De Fore also stated that of the fatal incidents surrounding the vehicle, 63% were alcohol-related, and only 24% were wearing seat belts. But despite these, Consumer Union doubled down, eventually showing a video of its tests featuring two of the Samurai’s wheels coming off the ground in a swerve test. Addressing reporters, Consumer Union technical director R. David Pittle remarked that the vehicle “literally trips over its own feet.”

Needless to say, Consumer Reports’ attacks against the Samurai tanked the SUV’s sales in the United States. By 1989, the Samurai was selling just about 5,000 units per year. Suzuki pulled out the Samurai in 1995 due to dismal sales, but in 1996, Consumer Reports added salt to the wound by highlighting its Samurai findings in its anniversary edition. This prompted a lawsuit from the Japanese carmaker, which ultimately resulted in footage of Consumer Reports’ tests on the small SUV from 1988. The video was shocking. As could be seen in the videos from Consumer Reports’ own tests, the Samurai actually performed very well, resisting rollovers so much that Technical Director David Pittle opted to change the test course to make it more challenging. Footage of the tests showed some Consumer Union staff audibly cheering when the Samurai’s wheels finally left the ground. 

A Cautionary Tale

Suzuki and Consumer Union settled the lawsuit in 2004, and while the Consumer Reports publisher did not pay the Japanese carmaker any money or issue a retraction, it did issue a joint press statement clarifying that the magazine’s article about the Samurai in 1988 may have been misconstrued. It was a moral victory for Suzuki, but the damage had been done. 

This is something that the EV community, the auto sector, and the media itself must keep in mind. Anyone with the least bit of comprehension understands that there is a need to transition the motoring sector to more sustainable vehicles. The auto sector could not really afford to have another Suzuki Samurai saga right now, especially considering the sustainability goals of numerous countries worldwide.  

Tesla is leading the pack by a wide margin, and the company is only accelerating, with more vehicles poised to be built in Gigafactory Berlin, Giga Shanghai’s expansion, and in Gigafactory Texas. The motoring world cannot really be involved in unnecessary drama against Tesla today, as the mission to accelerate the advent of sustainability is far more important than tribal quarrels or prejudice against a group of EV enthusiasts. Does Tesla have to improve? Definitely, yes, especially when it comes to build consistency and after-sales service. Can Autopilot be safer? Absolutely, and Tesla definitely should. Was showing a walkthrough of how to illegally hack the driver-assist system using a defeat device (among many) helpful? Perhaps not. 

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Opinion: Consumer Reports’ Tesla Autopilot stunt crossed a line in an already-heated EV climate
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