Consumer Reports Urges Tesla to Pull Plug on Autopilot

Consumer Reports on Thursday urged Tesla to disable the automatic steering function and change the name of its Autopilot driving assist feature.

Questions recently have arisen over whether Tesla’s Model S vehicles can operate safely without regular human intervention.

Consumer Reports’ change request sprang from concerns over a number of recent test crashes, including a fatal accident involving a tractor-trailer in Florida, which is the subject of a federal investigation.

The organization questioned whether the Autopilot feature lulls drivers into a false sense of security, and whether Autopilot-equipped cars can function safely without drivers paying close and consistent attention to potential safety hazards and road conditions.

“In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer,” said Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports. “But today, we’re deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology.”

Hands on the Wheel

The Autopilot feature cannot drive the car, but it allows drivers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time, said MacCleery.

Until the company updates the program to verify that hands should be on the wheel, Consumer Reports’ recommendation is that the feature should be disabled.

Consumer Reports tested semi-autonomous features from Audi, BMW and Mercedes, and those systems require the driver to keep their hands on the steering wheel, noted Jake Fisher, CR’s director of auto testing.

Statistically Safer

“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,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by company rep Keely Sulprizio.

“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,” the spokesperson added.

Model S vehicles have driven 130 million miles on Autopilot with one confirmed fatality. That compares to one fatality per 94 million miles for all vehicles in the U.S. and one fatality for every 60 million miles driven worldwide, Tesla pointed out.

Federal Probe

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week sent a letter to Tesla seeking documents regarding the May 7 crash of the 2015 Model S vehicle. Questions have arisen about whether the forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking systems worked properly.

“NHTSA called the request a ‘standard step in its preliminary investigation of the design and performance of Tesla’s automated driving systems’ that were in use at the time of the crash, administration spokesperson Rebecca Grapsy told the E-Commerce Times.

The investigation may raise questions about potentially wider safety concerns surrounding the entire autonomous vehicle industry, and autonomous vehicle advocates may have to scramble to counteract growing worries.

“Our coalition was founded with the express purpose of increasing road safety and dramatically reducing the over 35,000 road fatalities that occur in the U.S. each year,” said David Strickland, counsel for the Self Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.

“We remain dedicated to developing and testing fully autonomous vehicles in order to bring the promise of self-driving vehicles to roads and highways,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Accident Reports

The company may have a growing problem on its hands due to the rolling nature of the disclosures about its safety record, suggested Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

“I think even more telling than the fatality that we’ve now learned about, or Consumer Reports or the NHTSA stance, is that we’re starting to hear about more accidents,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

The level of driver error in those incidents indeed may be quite high, Brauer acknowledged, but he questioned whether drivers actually were given clear and honest disclosure about the Autopilot feature’s capabilities.

“Having technological limitations is OK as long as consumers know about the technological limitations,” he said.

Entry Price

The Consumer Reports request comes at a critical time for Tesla. The company on Wednesday introduced the Model X 60D SUV, for US$74,000 — a more consumer-friendly price than its other models.

The announcement of the lower-priced model follows news that Tesla’s recent sales failed to meet expectations.

It also follows a public spat with Fortune over Tesla’s handling of information concerning the fatal crash.

Tesla took vehement exception to a critical report Fortune published, saying it was “fundamentally incorrect.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission reportedly is investigating whether Tesla disclosed the crash to investors with a proper filing in a timely manner. An SEC spokesperson declined to comment.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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