This past March, a Model X driving along a California highway careened into a highway divider whereupon the car’s battery pack caught on fire and engulfed the vehicle. The driver, tragically, died in the ensuing fire. In a subsequent investigation, it was revealed that the vehicle’s Autopilot feature was engaged at the time of the accident. Moreover, the vehicle’s logs revealed that the Model X issued a number of alerts to the driver in the seconds preceding the crash, essentially instructing him to resume control of the car.
Unfortunately, the situation detailed above, while perhaps not common, is not exactly unique. Over the past few years there have been a number of Autopilot-related accidents where Tesla drivers have reportedly ignored important alerts from the car.
In the wake of an accident involving Autopilot, Tesla will often release a statement claiming that “Autopilot does not prevent all accidents” and that the feature itself is not a 100% replacement for driver vigilance. Tesla also makes a point of noting: “No one knows about the accidents that didn’t happen, only the ones that did.”
All that said, there’s now a call from two consumer advocacy groups for Tesla to change the Autopilot moniker, with the underlying argument being that the name itself is misleading. Specifically, both The Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog wrote a letter to the FTC arguing that the Autopilot name implies that the feature is much more capable and reliable than it truly is. What’s more, the groups claim that Tesla has a penchant for exaggerating the capabilities of its Autopilot feature.
The letter reads in part:
Two Americans are dead and one is injured as a result of Tesla deceiving and misleading consumers into believing that the Autopilot feature of its vehicles is safer and more capable than it actually is. After studying the first of these fatal accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that over-reliance on and a lack of understanding of the Autopilot feature can lead to death. The marketing and advertising practices of Tesla, combined with Elon Musk’s public statements, have made it reasonable for Tesla owners to believe, and act on that belief, that a Tesla with Autopilot is an autonomous vehicle capable of “self-driving”
Tesla is the only automaker to market its Level 2 vehicles as “self-driving”, and the name of its driver assistance suite of features, Autopilot, connotes full autonomy. In addition to these formal marketing and advertising ploys, Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, frequently misleads and deceives consumers about Autopilot’s safety and capabilities.
Responding to the letter, a Tesla spokesperson issued the following statement: “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 consumer groups ultimate aim is to have the FTC formally investigate the way Tesla’s advertises the Autopilot feature on its website and elsewhere.