'Consumers should never be guinea pigs for beta programs'
Consumer organizations are trying to rein in what they see as premature attempts to put self-driving cars on the nation's highways. Consumer Reports magazine, a part of nonprofit Consumers Union, wants Tesla to disable its Autopilot feature, and a coalition of consumer groups wants President Obama to put the brakes on his administration's "undue haste" to put self-driving cars on the road.
Consumer Reports says the Autopilot driving-assist system should be turned off until Tesla updates it to confirm that the driver's hands remain on the steering wheel at all times.
Tesla should also change the name of the Autopilot feature because it promotes a potentially dangerous assumption that the Model S is capable of driving on its own, Consumer Reports said. The auto company is under intense scrutiny for how it deployed and marketed the Autopilot system after a series of crashes, including a fatal crash involving a Tesla and a tractor-trailer in Florida.
“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. “In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer. But today, we’re deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology."
"‘Autopilot’ can't actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time. Tesla should disable automatic steering in its cars until it updates the program to verify that the driver’s hands are kept on the wheel,” MacCleery said in a prepared statement.
"Victim to hype"
Meanwhile, Consumer Watchdog and other consumer groups think the Obama administration is just a little bit too eager to let self-driving cars loose on the nation's roads.
“The error in rushing autonomous vehicle technology into cars and onto public highways without enforceable safety rules was underscored by the recent tragic fatal crash of a Tesla Model S in Florida while autopilot was engaged,” the coalition said in a letter to Obama.
The letter to Obama was signed by Joan Claybrook, President Emeritus of Public Citizen and Former NHTSA Administrator; Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety; Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Safety and Reliability; and John M. Simpson, Privacy Project Director for Consumer Watchdog.
The letter said safety officials in the administration "have apparently fallen victim to the hype of the developers of self-driving cars at the expense of public safety” and said self-driving technology should be parked "until adequate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards covering autonomous technologies are implemented through a public rulemaking process.”
Instead, the letter said, the administration’s policies on automated technologies have been “developed in the shadows.”
It noted that, without any public notice, “NHTSA granted Google the right to consider the robot the ‘driver’ in its autonomous vehicles" and also "announced an agreement with 20 automakers on voluntary standards for automatic emergency braking that were substantially lower than the findings of NHTSA’s own scientists."
"The rules of the road for automated technologies that would dramatically alter transportation in this country should be developed thoughtfully, in the light of day and with the highest level of transparency and public participation," the letter argued.
"Speculation by media"
Consumer Reports contacted Tesla about its concerns, and the company sent this response via email:
“Tesla is constantly introducing enhancements, proven over millions of miles of internal testing, to ensure that drivers supported by Autopilot remain safer than those operating without assistance. We will continue to develop, validate, and release those enhancements as the technology grows. While we appreciate well-meaning advice from any individual or group, we make our decisions on the basis of real-world data, not speculation by media.”
Tesla also defended the safety record of the system, writing that “130 million miles have been driven on Autopilot, with one confirmed fatality.”
MacCleery said automakers must commit immediately to name automated features with descriptive, not exaggerated, titles, noting that these companies should roll out new features only when they are certain they are safe.
“Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs,” she said.
ConsumerAffairs' founder and former editor, Jim Hood formerly headed Associated Press Broadcast News, directing coverage of major news events worldwide. He also served as Senior Vice President of United Press International and was the founder and editor of Zapnews, a newswire service for radio and television.