Feds ban device that lets Tesla users drive handsfree

Autopilot Buddy is a device that tricks a Tesla user's car into thinking the driver's hand is on the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sent the company behind the device a cease-and-desist order, calling the gadget 'unsafe' and 'unacceptable.'

Posted: Jun 20, 2018 8:30 AM
Updated: Jun 20, 2018 8:30 AM

Autopilot Buddy, a simple device designed to fool Tesla's Autopilot into thinking the drivers' hands are on the wheel, is unsafe, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday.

NHTSA also ordered the California company that makes the device, Dolder, Falco and Reese Partners LLC, to stop selling and marketing the Autopilot Buddy in the United States. CNNMoney was unable to immediately contact the company, which is not affiliated with Tesla.

Tesla's Autopilot driver assistance system will work only if sensors detect the driver's hands on the steering wheel. The car will still steer and maintain its position within the lane by itself but, for safety, the driver's hands are supposed to be on the wheel. If the system does not detect that the driver's hands are on the wheels, warning tones sound and messages appear in the gauge cluster or, in the Model 3, on the large center screen.

Autopilot Buddy which sold for about $200, appears to be simply a weight that pulls down on one side of the steering wheel, mimicking someone's hand pulling gently at the wheel. That's apparently enough to keep Tesla's Autopilot system working even if the driver's hands are not on the steering wheel at all.

"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," said NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King.

NHTSA has directed the company to respond by June 29 certifying that all US marketing, sales, and distribution of the product have stopped. The company's website currently says it will not ship the device to addresses within the United States.

"We support NHTSA's action regarding this product," a spokeswoman for Tesla said in an email.

The company's homepage includes multiple disclaimers absolving itself of any legal responsibility for crashes caused by the product's use. "Using this device irresponsibly may cause injury or death," the site says. "This device is designed for closed track use, not for use on public streets."

Tesla has recently updated the software in all its cars and SUVs, including ones already on the road, to remind drivers more frequently to keep their hands on the wheel or the Autopilot system will not work.

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