Using An Orange to Fool Tesla’s Autopilot Is Probably a Really Bad Idea

A since-deleted YouTube video shows off a fruit-related hack.

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Jan 16 2018, 3:17pm

Image: Tesla

Using an orange to steer your Tesla probably isn’t a good idea, but it’s exactly what one man did in a video recently uploaded to—and then quickly deleted from—YouTube.

Dave Mitton, who lives south of Salt Lake City in Utah, posted a video on January 14 showing how a navel orange wedged into the steering wheel fooled his P85D Tesla Model S into driving itself.

Mitton figured out that the Tesla steering wheel requires a certain amount of pressure, or torque, to keep the car’s Autosteer engaged. He used the orange to apply continuous pressure on the steering wheel. In the YouTube video he notes that he’d been driving for 25 miles on a highway without having to put his hand on the wheel. Mitton didn’t immediately reply to Motherboard’s request for comment—we will update this article if he responds.

Autosteer is part of Tesla’s Autopilot software, which also enables lane-departure warnings, automatic parking, and remotely “summoning” the vehicle, which can move the Tesla in and out of a garage without a person inside. Tesla has incorporated some autonomous or semi-autonomous elements into its vehicles, but the cars currently on the market are decidedly not self-driving cars.

Tesla’s Model S owner’s manual and other owner-facing literature explicitly say drivers should be fully attentive and keep their hands on the wheel at all times, even when using Autosteer or its Traffic-Aware Cruise Control system: “Never depend on Autosteer to determine an appropriate driving path. Always be prepared to take immediate action. Failure to follow these instructions could cause serious property damage, injury or death.”

Tesla’s taken steps to mitigate possibly dangerous driving scenarios. Drivers have to tap the car’s screen to agree to keep their hands on the steering wheel and maintain control of the vehicle before the car will activate Autosteer.

Following a Florida crash in 2016 that killed the driver of a Tesla, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that Autosteer actually reduces Tesla's crash rate.

Image: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation

A Tesla spokesperson speaking on background said that if and when the terms are abused—say, by someone who isn’t keeping their hands on the steering wheel—the system will deliver an escalating series of audio and visual warnings. If the driver ignores these messages, they get locked out of autopilot for the remainder of their trip.

Beyond this, there’s not much Tesla can do to prevent people from doing stupid things in its cars. Another video on YouTube shows how another driver strapped a water bottle to his steering wheel to keep Autosteer on.

Jean-François Barsoum, a Canadian Tesla owner contacted by Motherboard via email, said he’s not surprised to see Mitton’s video. Whenever similar tips surface online, he said people’s reactions oscillate between “cool!” and “that’s irresponsible and that’s why we can’t have nice things.”

“I personally drive with my left elbow on the windowsill and my hand or a few fingers on the wheel, which is enough to satisfy the autopilot requirements—I rarely, if ever, get warnings,” he wrote. “I have had to take over at a moment’s notice before...So I wouldn't recommend the orange method. ;-)”

Correction: This article originally said that the driver killed in the Florida crash was watching Harry Potter at the time of the incident. That reported detail was later refuted by the man's family.