Police bans hands-free driving in Malaysia after S’porean drives Tesla Model 3 to Penang on Autopilot

The police has announced it has banned motorists from using Tesla’s Autopilot function to drive hands-free in Malaysia, following a series of viral TikTok videos in which a Singaporean couple drove to Penang in a Model 3 using the semi-autonomous driving system. User SGpikarchu demonstrated the functionality by driving certain sections hands-free, leading to the force’s consternation.

According to Guang Ming Daily, Bukit Aman Traffic Investigations and Enforcement chief assistant director Superintendent Dr Bakri Zainal Abidin said the use of automated driving functions can lead to drivers being inattentive and insensitive to road conditions, referring to a research report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“From the PDRM’s perspective, Malaysia currently has no rules or laws against automated driving systems, but these systems do not help drivers keep their full attention on driving – the system can’t even be sure if there is a driver sitting in the vehicle.

Police bans hands-free driving in Malaysia after S’porean drives Tesla Model 3 to Penang on Autopilot

“This will probably cause the driver to pay less attention to the traffic around them, instead spending their time on other distracting things, such as using a mobile phone while driving,” said Bakri, adding that even the United States prohibits the use of autonomous vehicles, despite carmakers and tech companies testing such vehicles in the country (having obtained the necessary permits, of course).

Bakri reminded motorists that the Road Traffic Rules 1959 stipulates good attitude, caution and concentration while driving. He said that even if all vehicles in the future are equipped with automated driving functions, drivers should always pay attention and be aware of road conditions, in order to be able to take over in time and prevent an accident should these systems fail.

“When driving, the focus must be on the road, as traffic flow and road user attitudes mean that a human operator is still required to operate and drive the vehicle,” Bakri added. In some accident hotspot areas, he said – especially among others drivers in rural areas – drivers still need to assess the situation manually.

Police bans hands-free driving in Malaysia after S’porean drives Tesla Model 3 to Penang on Autopilot

He also talked about an accident in California in 2019, in which the driver of a Tesla used Autopilot, ran a red light and slammed into another car, killing two people; the driver was charged with two counts of manslaughter in January, The Guardian reported. Bakri said the crash showed the dangers using autonomous driving technologies can pose on other road users based on traffic and road conditions.

On the subject of the Singaporean couple, Bakri said their actions were prohibited in Malaysia and the police will invoke the Land Transport Act 1987 to launch an investigation. He also mentioned that while Tesla has fitted the car with “Full Self-Driving Hardware,” Autopilot currently still requires driver supervision and is not a “full self-driving” system in its own right.

“The Autopilot feature in Tesla vehicles is helpful to drivers, but it doesn’t mean that drivers can completely take their hands off the steering wheel and mistakenly think that the system can automatically and safely control the car,” Bakri said.

Tesla released a Full Self-Driving function as a beta in October 2020

To their credit, the TikTok user said the couple had driven most of the way using Autopilot with their hands on their steering wheel, only taking them off to show users how the system worked. However, Tesla’s own literature for the system states the driver must have their hands on the steering wheel at all times.

There are no vehicles currently sold in Malaysia or Singapore that allow hands-free driving. There are certain cars that have extended Level 2 semi-autonomous driving capability in countries like the United States and Japan, enabling limited hands-free driving. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class in Germany and the Honda Legend Hybrid EX in Japan are also capable of Level 3 autonomy, but those are very rare exceptions that are tightly regulated and only allowed to function under very specific circumstances.

Vehicles with “regular” Level 2 automated driving features have failsafe measures in place to prevent drivers from abusing the system, such as warning the driver and disabling the system altogether if they detect extended amounts of hands-free driving.

It’s very easy to game the system, however, as evidenced by Consumer Reports managing to trick a Tesla Model Y into driving on a test track without a driver in the seat. It doesn’t help that Tesla itself uses the confusing “Full Self-Driving Capability” moniker on cars that aren’t actually capable of full self-driving.

The Silicon Valley carmaker also has a history of releasing unfinished software and inadequately informing users of what these systems can and cannot do, leading to crashes and even deaths. It introduced a Full Self-Driving function as a beta in October 2020, causing users to post up videos of themselves driving hands-free. For its part, Tesla warned that the system “may do the wrong thing at the worst time, so you must always keep your hands on the wheel and pay extra attention to the road.” The system is still in beta.

The company came under increased scrutiny last year when it decided to ship the Model 3 and Y without radar sensors, relying solely on cameras (these vehicles, by the way, are still being sold as being fitted with “Full Self-Driving Hardware”). In February, the cars were investigated by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) after drivers complained of “phantom braking” caused by false positives.

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