Tesla Says Driver Took Hands Off Wheel In Latest “Autopilot” Crash

Once again, high-end electric car maker Tesla is in the spotlight following a crash by a driver who was using the company’s “Autopilot” feature. However, the company says the driver was taking the term “autopilot” too literally.

While one might hear “autopilot” and imagine some autonomous self-driving vehicle that does the driving for you, the way the word is used for Tesla’s Autopilot functionality is much more limited.

According to Tesla marketing materials, Autopilot will let vehicles “steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control.” It also has other features, like auto-braking, collision avoidance, and automated parallel parking.

This distinction is at the heart of a war of words between Tesla and a Tesla owner in Beijing. Last week, he crashed his car into a the side of a vehicle that was partially parked in the road. Tesla says the driver is to blame for taking his hands off the wheel, while the driver says he was misled about the Autopilot feature.

In an interview with Reuters, the driver says Tesla sold him on Autopilot as a feature that would do much of the driving for him.

“The impression they give everyone is that this is self-driving, this isn’t assisted driving,” the 33-year-old programmer tells Reuters, which found a handful of other Tesla owners in China who also claim the car company is pitching Autopilot as “self-driving.”

“They all described it as being able to drive itself,” said one Tesla owner from Shanghai.

A rep for Tesla tells Reuters that the company has “never described Autopilot as an autonomous technology or a ‘self-driving car,’ and any third-party descriptions to this effect are not accurate.”

With regard to this particular incident, in which no one appears to have been hurt, Tesla says sensors show the driver’s hands were not on the wheel at the time his car scraped along the side of a parked Volkswagen.

This sort of hands-off behavior, notes the Telsa rep, is apparently counter to the instructions provided by the car company.

“As clearly communicated to the driver in the vehicle, autosteer is an assist feature that requires the driver to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times, to always maintain control and responsibility for the vehicle, and to be prepared to take over at any time.”

But in his videotaped interview with Reuters, the Beijing driver insists that when Tesla sales staff showed him the feature, they took their hands off the wheel and talked about it as a self-driving feature.

“This is certainly related to some false promotion and marketing,” he tells Reuters. “They described [this function] very well to everyone, but in fact they took an unfinished product and used it as a promotional gimmick.”

Tesla has been under increased scrutiny this summer over the Autopilot feature, following a fatal collision in Florida. It’s since been confirmed that while the driver was going around 10 miles per hour over the speed limit at the time, the Autopilot feature was engaged.

The car maker said in July that it would not disable Autopilot, but a number of consumer safety advocates — including our colleagues at Consumer Reports — have called Tesla out for the potentially confusing messages surrounding the Autopilot feature.

“By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” said Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports, which has said that Tesla should disable the autosteering aspect of Autopilot until it is updated to require the driver’s hands remain on the steering wheel. “‘Autopilot’ can’t actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time.”