Much of the appeal of self-driving cars is that it will free you up from actually driving when on journeys. Those long drives to see family and friends suddenly become less of a chore when you can just watch a film on your phone as the car does all the work. That comfortable future might not be possible, though, as lawmakers are pushing to force automated car manufacturers to make tech that locks drivers' phones, even when the car is doing all the work.
The push comes after the National Transportation Safety Board published an investigation into a 2018 crash involving a Tesla on 'autopilot mode'. On March 23, 2018, a Tesla Model X on a Californian Highway drove into a crash barrier and collided with two other cars. The driver of the Tesla, Walter Huang, later died of his injuries. The investigators discovered that the Tesla was on 'autopilot' mode, a setting which allows the car to change lanes and adjust the car's speed, and it had become confused, directing the car into the crash barrier.
The investigators also determined that the driver "did not take corrective action" when it steered him off the road, "nor did he take evasive action to avoid the collision with the crash attenuator". They say this is "most likely due to distraction by a cell phone game".
While Tesla tells drivers to keep their hands on the wheel while their car is in Autopilot mode, it does not have any way of enforcing this. So, any drivers who become "over-reliant" on the software could be tempted to use their phone while their car drives.
In the report, the National Transportation Safety Board calls for "a technological solution" to stop the human drivers of self-driving cars taking their hands off the wheel. What they suggest is "a lock-out function or application that automatically disables highly distracting features of a portable electronic device while driving".
The Board also says clearly that "If Tesla Inc. does not incorporate system safeguards that limit the use of the Autopilot system [...], continued use of the system [...] the risk for future crashes will remain".
In remarks made around the reports publication, chairman of the safety board Robert L. Sumwalt said "If you own a car with partial automation, you do not own a self-driving car. Don't pretend that you do. This means that when driving in the supposed "self-driving" mode: you can't sleep; you can't read a book; you can't watch a movie or TV show; you can't text; and, you can't play video games. And, that is precisely what we found in this crash - the driver was playing a video game on his smartphone when his car veered into the median barrier."
Sumwalt also said that the board had reached out to Tesla and other automobile manufacturers in 2017, before the crash, with recommendations of keeping drivers of automated cars safe. Tesla is the only one not to have responded.
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