A new study suggests Tesla drivers tend to be more distracted when autopilot is enabled

Tesla’s autopilot system is considered to be a key selling point for the company, but its safety has been questioned by many, including federal authorities. According to a recent MIT study that gathered glance data about drivers, their concerns are perfectly reasonable, as it concludes people look less to forward areas of the vehicle/road.

There have been reports of multiple crashes involving Tesla’s autopilot (AP) system, at least enough to raise concerns about their safety. US safety agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) are already investigating the cause behind these accidents, but conclusions have not yet been published.

Studying the glance pattern of Tesla drivers with AP enabled or disabled in highway driving, a team of MIT researchers found drivers look more to off-road areas and less to the road in front of them. This conclusion alone could justify many of the reported accidents.

“Visual behavior patterns change before and after AP disengagement,” as per the study. “Before disengagement, drivers looked less on the road and focused more on non-driving related areas compared to after the transition to manual driving. The higher proportion of off-road glances before disengagement to manual driving were not compensated by longer glances ahead.”

The study results aren’t all that surprising but do provide insights into where drivers look when AP is enabled or disabled. When AP is turned on, drivers glanced more to down/center-stack areas of the car (phone, multimedia screen), which researchers presumed to be “non-driving related.”

Such conclusions also suggest that Tesla car owners that bought the FSD (Full Self Driving) system, which was recently updated to version 10, are not following the recommendations on how to use it. Although the car can drive itself, the EV manufacturer still recommends users remain vigilant when the system is turned on.

If you own a vehicle with FSD, whether you have it on or not, pay attention to the road in front of you at all times.