Consumer Groups Want U.S. Probe Of Tesla Autopilot Claims In Wake Of Crashes

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Consumer Groups Want U.S. Probe Of Tesla Autopilot Claims In Wake Of Crashes

By Alan Ohnsman, FORBES

May 23, 2018

Crashes involving drivers using Tesla’s semi-automated Autopilot feature when those accidents occurred spurred two consumer groups to call on U.S. regulators to investigate company claims about the technology they call deceptive and that contribute to a misunderstanding of its limitations.

In a letter sent to the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday, the Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog said marketing of Autopilot’s capabilities by Tesla and CEO Elon Musk’s public comments have led customers to believe their cars are capable of driving themselves. There’ve been two U.S. fatalities involving Tesla drivers who had Autopilot engaged when the accidents happened, and the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating two recent crashes in which Model S drivers in Los Angeles and Utah plowed into parked fire trucks while using it.

“Consumers in the market for a new Tesla see advertisements proclaiming, `Full Self-Driving Hardware on All Cars.” They are directed to videos of Tesla vehicles driving themselves through busy public roads, with no human operation whatsoever,” the groups said in their joint letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons. “They see press releases alleging that Autopilot reduces the likelihood of an accident by 40%. They also hear statements like `the probability of an accident with Autopilot is just less’ from Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk. Or they hear him relate Autopilot in a Tesla to autopilot systems in an aircraft. Such advertisements and statements mislead and deceive consumers into believing that Autopilot is safer and more capable than it is known to be.”

Managing consumer understanding of semi-automated systems, in which software, sensors, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist and automatic emergency braking are intended to aid human drivers versus autonomous technology that allows a car to drive itself is clearly a challenge. While the former, including systems like General Motor’s Super Cruise, Volvo’s Pilot Assist and Autopilot, a becoming increasingly common on new vehicles. The latter is not, though Musk has claimed since 2016 that Tesla’s are being built with all the hardware needed for full self-driving capability.

Tesla believes its owners understand what Autopilot can and can’t do. “The feedback that we get from our customers shows that they have a very clear understanding of what Autopilot is, how to properly use it, and what features it consists of,” the company said in an e-mailed statement, without directly commenting on the action by the consumer groups.

On its website, Tesla points out that Enhanced Autopilot, a $5,000 option, “should still be considered a driver’s assistance feature with the driver responsible for remaining in control of the car at all times. The company sells an add-on Full Self-Driving Capability option for $3,000 that someday when the software is perfected and regulations allow for it, will actually let the cars drive themselves.

Concerns about overreliance on the feature go back to a fatal 2016 crash in Florida involving a Model S owner who was apparently not watching the road when his vehicle’s sensors failed to detect a truck crossing its path. The company subsequently made a series of modifications to the system in the aftermath of the accident and investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the NTSB.

However clear Tesla’s explanation of Autopilot may be, it’s not getting through to all customers, such as an excited young woman who posted a YouTube video this week detailing the joys of “doing my hair in my self-driving Tesla.”

The Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog suggest the company and Musk have created this misunderstanding. “The burden now falls on the FTC to investigate Tesla’s unfair and deceptive practices so that consumers have accurate information, understand the limitations of Autopilot, and operate their vehicle safely and without endangering themselves or other drivers, passengers, or pedestrians on the road.”

Alan Ohnsman covers technology-driven changes reshaping transportation. Follow him on Twitter. Have tips to share with Forbes anonymously? Click here.

Consumer Watchdog
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