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Autopilot with Cowbell: Is Tesla Serious?

by Derek Viita | 4月 13, 2016

This week, Elon Musk revealed a secret mode in Tesla's Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system.  When Autopilot is activated 4 times in succession, a portion of the Autopilot's cluster display lights up in rainbow colors similar to the "Rainbow Road" level of the video game "Mario Kart."  Additionally, a clip of cowbell audio from a popular "Saturday Night Live" sketch plays over the in-vehicle audio system.  A video example of this Autopilot "Easter egg" can be found here.

The media jumped on this announcement as potential mitigation for the bad press Tesla was about to receive regarding a safety-related recall of its new Model X car.  Ironically, while it is intended to be a playful bit of consumer delight, this "Easter egg" in the Autopilot system could be perceived as similarly problematic from a safety standpoint.

In our on-road UX benchmark of Autopilot, one of the pervasive issues encountered by first-time users was the subtle iconography and audible tones used to indicate system status and activation or deactivation of the system.  As we have outlined repeatedly in prior reports (including our review of best practices for semi-autonomous systems), proper labeling, clear notifications during hand-off and take-over, and a plainly clear system status display are crucial to enhance the user experience and gain the trust of first-time users.  Interestingly, the cowbell audio in Autopilot's secret mode appears to play much louder and clearer than the subtle tone indicating that Autopilot has engaged.  And the rainbow-colored display is certainly clearer than the subtle blue lines Autopilot typically uses to indicate that it is active.  Did Tesla take more care to create a clear user experience for its Autopilot "Easter egg" than the normal Autopilot displays and tones?

More concerning is the perceived lack of seriousness in Tesla's approach to developing the HMI for autonomous systems.  There are certainly scenarios where gamification and "Easter eggs" can enhance the in-vehicle user experience and provide a bit of delight for consumers.  Displays which playfully encourage driving habits that conserve energy (such as one we observed in Car2Go’s Smart cars) are one example of such delightful systems.  However, safety-critical systems such as Autopilot are not appropriate areas for such experimentation.

At best, this news shows that Tesla "thumbs its nose" at the safety guidelines NHTSA and other bodies are attempting to establish around autonomous vehicles.  At worst, it could show that Tesla simply does not care about the safe user experience of such systems.  And worst of all, news like this could potentially lengthen the time frame mass-market consumers (in other words, non-Tesla users) might take to seriously trust self-driving cars.

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