Kavanagh targets Tesla drivers who bypass safety features

A Tesla Model S P85. Photo by MediaGamut | Creative Commons

Rep. John Kavanagh has proposed legislation that would allow police to ticket Tesla drivers who attempt to circumvent safety features that are part of the electric vehicles’ self-driving modes.

Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican and a Tesla owner himself, sponsored House Bill 2060, which states that a person may not override the safety features of a fully autonomous or partially autonomous vehicle. 

The idea came to him after he saw a video of a Tesla driver asleep at the wheel and discovered that drivers had been putting weights on their steering wheel to bypass a specific safety feature put in place by the car manufacturer. 

Tesla’s vehicles can operate in a semi-autonomous mode in which they can regulate speed and make minor corrections. It’s a mode Kavanagh himself has used and has seen the limitations of. But in that mode the cars are still not fully autonomous.

“Obviously you still have to pay attention,” Kavanagh said. 

The cars make sure of this by having the driver periodically apply pressure to the wheel with their hands. 

However, some drivers have been applying weights and other mechanisms to the wheel in order to trick the car into thinking someone is there. 

Last year, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration issued a cease-and-desist order to the manufacturer of the “Autopilot Buddy,” declaring the device unsafe. The device, when attached to the steering wheel, gives the car the impression that a driver’s hands are on the wheel. 

The website for the company now says that they cannot send to addresses within the United States. 

If Kavanagh’s bill were to pass, it would allow law enforcement in the state to issue a traffic citation to anyone driving a Tesla who had modified the steering wheel with such a device or with their own makeshift one, such as one Tesla forum user who uses fishing weights for his car or the popular water bottle trick

The maximum penalty would be up to $250. 

The bill also stipulates that a person cannot modify the vehicle’s computer programming or mechanically modify the vehicle to override the safety features. 

“Granted it may be hard catching people doing this but if you don’t make it illegal you can’t catch people doing this,” Kavanagh said, adding “they may catch a few people.”

Additionally, if a Tesla was involved in a fatal or non-fatal crash and investigators later discovered that the autonomous mode had been tampered with either electronically or physically, it would create an additional citation that could be added. 

Telsa did not respond to a request for comment on the bill.

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.