Pressure Mounts For Tesla To Stop Using The Term “Autopilot”

What does the term “autopilot” mean to you? For many people, it applies to a machine that can steer itself with minimal human intervention, but for electric carmaker Tesla it’s a marketing term to describe a feature that is decidedly not hands-off — and which consumer safety advocates believe can cause potentially dangerous confusion.

Consumer Watchdog recently sent a letter [PDF] to California DMV director Jean Shiomoto, urging the agency to act on specific regulations proposed in September that would, in part, put restrictions on how carmakers can advertise self-driving vehicles.

Under the proposed rules [PDF] — which mainly pertain to the future development of self-driving vehicles — no car could be advertised as autonomous unless it meets the definition set forth by vehicle codes and was manufactured by a company that holds a valid autonomous vehicle permit.

Additionally, carmakers would not be able to use terms, such as “self-driving,” “automated,” “auto-pilot,” or other statements that are likely to persuade a “reasonably prudent person to believe a vehicle is autonomous” when it isn’t.

The DMV must immediately start the process to enact these “regulations protecting consumers from misleading advertising that leaves the dangerous – and sometimes fatal – impression that a car is more capable of driving itself than is actually the case,” argues the letter.

Watchdog contends that Tesla’s Autopilot features are the most prominent in the public eye, and the most confusing.

Autopilot – which steers the car more actively than similar systems that rely on automatic braking, steering assist or adaptive cruise control to aid drivers – has been aggressively marketed by the company.

Additionally, the company recently announced that it would make all new cars self-driving, but wouldn’t actually turn the system on yet.

“Manufacturers must not be allowed to advertise cars as, or describe them as, ‘self-driving’ when a human driver must actually monitor or control the vehicle,” the letter states. “Tesla, with its promotion of its so-called Autopilot feature, is a prime example of the deadly consequences of such unjustified hype.”

According to Consumer Watchdog, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has long hyped the feature, leaving the impression that the vehicle is autonomous. The group cites several Tweets, press conferences, and other announcements from Musk that allude to the feature being fully autonomous, including a video in which he sits in the driver’s seat of a Tesla vehicle demonstration with his hands off the steering wheel.

“That is too long to wait to stop Tesla and its CEO from risking even more lives by falsely promoting Autopilot technology as self-driving,” the group claims.

For its part, Tesla has said it would take steps to ensure that drivers or would-be drivers are aware of Autopilot’s functions. Additionally, in September, the carmaker unveiled Version 8 of its Autopilot software, announcing changes to the way in which drivers must keep their hands on the wheel. Tesla says that drivers who ignore three audible warnings in an hour to put their hands on the wheel will have to pull over and restart the vehicle to use Autopilot.

Still, Consumer Watchdog urged the DMV to take immediate action on the advertising portion of the rules, as enacting the full regulation would likely take a year.

“Currently there is nothing to stop the sort of hype spouted by Elon Musk with its potentially deadly consequences,” the letter states. “DMV should extract the advertising regulatory language from the rest of the draft autonomous vehicle regulations and start a formal rulemaking to enact that section immediately.

Consumer Watchdog’s concerns about Autopilot’s marketing was echoed by our colleagues at Consumers Union.

“The ‘Autopilot’ name is misleading to consumers, and Tesla should stop using it,” William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, said. “What’s more, this type of marketing can be dangerous, by giving consumers a false sense of security in the ability of a car to drive itself when it actually requires the constant attention of a human driver. We support the work of federal and state authorities to crack down on false, misleading, or unfair marketing claims about automated driving systems.”

A rep for Tesla tells the Los Angeles Times that “owners have communicated that they understand how Autopilot works and should be used, and this is clearly explained and reinforced every time a customer uses the feature.”

The company contends that the “inaccurate and sensationalistic view of Autopilot put forth by [Consumer Watchdog] is exactly the kind of misinformation that threatens to harm consumer safety.”

This, of course, is just the latest issue facing Tesla’s Autopilot feature, which was tied to its first fatal crash in June.

The car maker said in July that it would not disable Autopilot after the fatal crash, 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.

In August, the owner of a Tesla in Beijing said he crashed his vehicle into the side of a vehicle that was partially parked in the road while using the feature. 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.

Shortly after the incident, Tesla said it removed that word, along with another term that means “self-driving,” from its website for customers in China.

Since then, regulators in Germany have asked the company to rename the “misleading” Autopilot feature to avoid any confusion that could lead to dangerous collisions.

[via Los Angeles Times]

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