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Tesla’s automatic lane-changing feature is ‘far less competent’ than a human driver, Consumer Reports says

Consumer Reports testers have "serious safety concerns" about the latest version of Tesla’s automatic lane-changing feature. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The latest version of Tesla’s automatic lane changing feature may actually be less safe than a human driver, according to Consumer Reports.

An April update to Tesla’s autopilot software allows automatic lane changes on certain roads as part of what the company dubbed a more “seamless” experience. The feature works so long as Tesla’s autopilot system is activated and drivers have plugged in a final destination. The function can also be turned off.

But when Consumer Reports tested the feature, reviewers came back with concerns that it could create potential safety risks. Consumer Reports found that cars in autopilot mode often cut off other vehicles or broke laws while trying to pass. Its verdict: The lane-change function “raises serious safety concerns.”

In fact, David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, a nonprofit organization that tests products and conducts consumer-oriented research, said in the review that “Tesla is showing what not to do on the path toward self-driving cars” by launching automated driving features “that aren’t vetted properly.”

“Before selling these systems, automakers should be required to give the public validated evidence of that system’s safety — backed by rigorous simulations, track testing, and the use of safety drivers in real-world conditions,” Friedman said.

At least three fatal crashes in the United States have involved Tesla’s driver-assistance features. Most recently, a Model 3 collided with a tractor-trailer. According to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the driver had turned on autopilot about 10 seconds before the March 1 crash. The sedan didn’t detect the driver’s hands on the steering wheel right before the collision. The driver was killed.

Tesla Model 3 Autopilot was active before deadly collision, federal investigators say

The crashes have heightened questions around the safety of the technology, and to what extent drivers can or should rely on it. Still, chief executive Elon Musk is setting lofty goals for even more self-driving features. He has said that autonomous Tesla taxis will shuttle passengers by the end of the year. And he’s set his sights on cars without steering wheels within the next two years.

In a statement to Consumer Reports, Tesla said: “Navigate on Autopilot is based on map data, fleet data, and data from the vehicle’s sensors. However, it is the driver’s responsibility to remain in control of the car at all times, including safely executing lane changes.”

In an April 3 blog post, Tesla said that it regularly examines data from when drivers took over the lane-change feature, and that drivers like the option for daily commutes.

The company told The Post that drivers have logged millions of miles using Navigate on Autopilot and completed millions of automated lane changes. The April update is just one of hundreds that have made Teslas more pleasurable to drive, the company said, adding that the autopilot feature will continue to improve over time.

Consumer Reports’s testers also disputed Tesla’s pitch that the car’s three rear-facing cameras can spot a fast-approaching vehicle faster than a driver.

"The system has trouble responding to vehicles that approach quickly from behind,” Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’s senior director of auto testing, said in the review. “Because of this, the system will often cut off a vehicle that is going a much faster speed since it doesn’t seem to sense the oncoming car until it’s relatively close.”

The testers also had to cancel lane-changes that had been approved by autopilot because they felt it wouldn’t be safe. In other words, the driver often intervened to prevent the system from causing harm, Consumer Reports said.

“The system’s role should be to help the driver, but the way this technology is deployed, it’s the other way around,” Fisher said. “It’s incredibly nearsighted. It doesn’t appear to react to brake lights or turn signals, it can’t anticipate what other drivers will do, and as a result, you constantly have to be one step ahead of it.”