The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a cease and desist order on Tuesday to the manufacturer of a $199 aftermarket device that tricks Tesla’s Autopilot system into thinking a driver’s hands are on the steering wheel.
The “Autopilot Buddy” is a piece of magnetic plastic that attaches to a Tesla vehicle’s steering wheel in order to create the impression that the driver is keeping his or her hands there. Tesla’s advanced driver assist system Autopilot only works with continued pressure on the steering wheel. If a driver’s hands aren’t detected, the display behind the wheel will begin to flash, followed by audible warnings, and eventually Autopilot will disable itself. Autopilot Buddy appears designed for very foolish people who want to avoid those warnings.
“A product intended to circumvent motor vehicle safety and driver attentiveness is unacceptable,” said NHTSA deputy administrator Heidi King in a statement. “By preventing the safety system from warning the driver to return hands to the wheel, this product disables an important safeguard, and could put customers and other road users at risk.”
The website for Autopilot Buddy claims the device is manufactured in the US, but notes that it is not presently for sale in the US. The manufacturers claim their device returns Autopilot to its former glory: “‘Autosteer’ was first released to Telsa owners in Oct 2015,” the site reads. “Since that time Tesla’s ‘updates’ have slowly diminished the duration we can enjoy ‘autopilot’ in our cars.”
Essentially Autopilot Buddy is being sold as a “hack” that allows Tesla drivers to be more inattentive behind the wheel. And that’s really bad, especially these days when Tesla is under intense scrutiny by traffic regulators about its semi-autonomous Autopilot system. There have been a number of car crashes recently involving Tesla vehicles using Autopilot, three of which resulted in fatalities. Federal investigators recently issued a preliminary report on one fatal crash in Mountain View, California, in which Autopilot was reported to have made a navigational mistake contributing to the incident.
Since its launch in 2015, Tesla owners have sought out new and creative ways to trick Autopilot. People couldn’t wait to upload videos sitting in the backseat while their cars drove “autonomously” down the highway. Tesla responded by updating its software to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel — which seemed like a smart fix until one driver figured out all you needed to do to fool the system was wedge an orange against the wheel to simulate the pressure of a human hand. People love tricking technology, even if it could cost them their lives.
Autopilot Buddy seems designed to exploit that very human frailty. But even so, the manufacturers appear aware that what they’re trying to sell is highly unethical, and possibly illegal. The website includes a number of disclaimers. The manufacturers claim its “not intended to be a hands-off device” but is intended “for track use only,” which is hilarious because who only drives their Tesla on a closed track?
The trademark for Autopilot Buddy is held by an entity called Dolder, Falco, and Reese LLC, which is registered in Valencia, California. State records list the registered agent as Carl Reese, who also owns a construction firm in Valencia. We’ve reached out for comment and will update this story if we hear back.