Tesla has enabled the in-car camera in its Model 3 and Model Y vehicles to monitor drivers when its Autopilot advanced driver assistance system is being used.
In a software update, Tesla indicated the "cabin camera above the rearview mirror can now detect and alert driver inattentiveness while Autopilot is engaged." Notably, Tesla has a closed loop system for the data, meaning imagery captured by the camera does not leave the car. The system cannot save or transit information unless data sharing is enabled, according to Tesla. The firmware update was cited by a number of Tesla owners, industry watchers and bloggers who are active on Twitter.
Tesla has faced criticism for not activating a driver monitoring system within the vehicle even as evidence mounted that owners were misusing the system. Owners have posted dozens of videos on YouTube and TikTok abusing the Autopilot system — some of whom have filmed themselves sitting in the backseat as the vehicle drives along the highway. Several fatal crashes involving Tesla vehicles that had Autopilot engaged has put more pressure on the company to act.
Until now, Tesla has not used the camera installed in its vehicles and instead relied on sensors in the steering wheel that measured torque — a method that is supposed to require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel. Drivers have documented and shared on social media how to trick the sensors into thinking a human is holding the wheel.
"Consumer Reports has been calling for camera-based driver monitoring systems for automation systems like Tesla's Autopilot for years," Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at CR told TechCrunch. "Tesla's current system of sensing torque on the wheel cannot tell if the driver is looking at the road. If the new system proves effective, it could help prevent distraction and be a major improvement for safety — potentially saving lives. We hope that other cars are updated soon and are looking forward to evaluating them."
Tesla didn't share details about the driver monitoring system — for instance, is it tracking eye gaze or head position — or whether it will be used to allow hands-free driving. GM's Super Cruise and Ford's Blue Cruise advanced driver assistance systems allow for hands-free driving on certain divided highways. Their systems use a combination of map data, high-precision GPS, cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system that monitors the person behind the wheel, to ensure drivers are paying attention.
Tesla vehicles come standard with a driver assistance system branded as Autopilot. For an additional $10,000, owners can buy "full self-driving," or FSD -- a feature that CEO Elon Musk promises will one day deliver full autonomous driving capabilities. FSD, which has steadily increased in price and capability, has been available as an option for years.
However, Tesla vehicles are not self-driving. FSD includes the parking feature Summon as well as Navigate on Autopilot, an active guidance system that navigates a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. Once drivers enter a destination into the navigation system, they can enable "Navigate on Autopilot" for that trip.
The move comes just a week after Tesla tweeted that its Model Y and Model 3 vehicles bound for North American customers are being built without radar, fulfilling a desire by Musk to only use cameras combined with machine learning to support Autopilot and other active safety features.
Automakers typically use a combination of radar and cameras -- and even lidar -- to provide the sensing required to deliver advanced driver assistance system features like adaptive cruise control, which matches the speed of a car to surrounding traffic, as well as lane keeping and automatic lane changes. Musk has touted the potential of its branded "Tesla Vision" system, which only uses cameras and so-called neural net processing to detect and understand what is happening in the environment surrounding the vehicle and then respond appropriately.
The decision to pull radar out of the vehicles has caused some blowback for the company. Consumer Reports no longer lists the Model 3 as a Top Pick and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said it plans to remove the Model 3's Top Safety Pick+ designation. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has said that Model 3 and Model Y vehicles built on or after April 27, 2021 will no longer receive the agency's check mark for automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and dynamic brake support.