Tesla's “release innovations first, worry about safety later” mantra is back. The newest update for Tesla's vehicles is a “Smart Summon” feature that allows Tesla owners to remotely call their car from across the parking lot on their smartphone app. The vehicle then uses artificial intelligence to make the trip without the help or guidance of the driver.
Tesla owners have raved about the feature, calling it a stunning use of technology that is a glance into the future of self-driving cars. It seems like everyone who owns a Tesla has already posted a video of them using the Smart Summon feature to call their car across a mall parking lot.
Even though the feature only has a range of 200 feet and the vehicle only approaches at little more than a crawl, and even though it has only been around for barely more than a week, Smart Summon has already been the cause of numerous fender-benders and near misses. The feature seems confounded by basic traffic rules like driving on the right side of the road, stopping at stop signs and intersections, and driving straight at light posts before the car's owner takes their finger off the summoning button.
These dangers have been made worse by the fact that Tesla's Smart Summon app uses maps of parking lots that can be outdated.
While the instructions for the Smart Summon app tell Tesla owners to only use the feature on “private parking lots and driveways,” it should come as no surprise that many Tesla owners have experimented with it in public lots. Many of them have been crowded with traffic and walkers.
Pedestrians have been the most vulnerable victims of the new feature. All they see is a vehicle turning on and backing out of a parking spot, even though no one has approached it and gotten in. When they notice that the driver's seat is empty, it is understandable for them to think that something is going wrong. While some people might see the Tesla logo on the hood of the car and take an educated guess that they are witnessing a new car feature, others are not going to put the two together. They are likely to stand around and wait to see what happens, potentially confusing the driverless vehicle's automated programs.
While the car's low speeds might seem like this would mitigate this concern, if a summoned-Tesla cannot detect a pedestrian, it also cannot stop for them. Whether the vehicle would stop after knocking down a pedestrian is still unclear.