Safety Groups Want Investigation On Tesla Autopilot

Tesla Autopilot map
Tesla introduced Navigate on Autopilot (shown above) last year. Tesla says the active guidance feature for Enhanced Autopilot that, with driver supervision, guides a car from a highway’s on-ramp to off-ramp. Credit: Tesla
Two consumer groups are renewing their call to the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Tesla for what they allege are “dangerously misleading and deceptive practices and representations of Tesla Motors, Inc. regarding the safety and capabilities” of the automaker’s Autopilot feature.

Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog Concerns

The Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog say since calling on the FTC to investigate one year ago, another American has died, others have been injured, and many more have “acted recklessly as a result of deceptive practices by Tesla” making their owners believe that a Tesla with Autopilot is an autonomous vehicle capable of self-driving. To be clear, it is not. (See our story: Are we driving dumber in smarter cars). The consumer groups made similar requests to the Attorneys General of California, New York, Florida, Michigan, Utah, and Massachusetts.

In a joint press release, the Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog warned that Tesla’s representations of its Autopilot feature continue to violate Section 5 of the FTC Act, as well as similar state statutes, because they are “materially deceptive and are likely to mislead consumers into reasonably believing that their vehicles have self-driving or autonomous capabilities.” The letters state that Tesla’s and Elon Musk’s public statements regarding Autopilot “mislead and deceive consumers.”

“Last year we asked the FTC to stop Tesla’s continued deceptive use of the term ‘Autopilot’ before there were more deaths and injuries because of an overreliance on non-autonomous technology,” said Center for Auto Safety Executive Director Jason Levine. “One year later, there have been more unnecessary, preventable tragedies, and more intentional deception by Tesla, including claims of ‘full self-driving capability.’ If the FTC, and the states do not stop these unlawful representations, the consequences will squarely fall on their shoulders.”

“Tesla has consistently and deceptively hyped its technology, it is time for regulators to step in and protect the public,” said Adam Scow, Senior Advocate for Consumer Watchdog. “Tesla has irresponsibly marketed its technology as safety enhancing, when instead it is killing people.”

The consumer groups further allege the name Autopilot continues to create confusion among consumers. They point to a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) examined consumer understanding of advanced driver assistance systems, including Tesla’s “Autopilot.” IIHS concluded that “the name ‘Autopilot’ was associated with the highest likelihood that drivers believed a behavior was safe while in operation, for every behavior measured, compared with other system names.” Notably, 48 percent of respondents believed that it was safe to take one’s hands off the steering wheel when using Autopilot, compared to a maximum of 33 percent for any other similar system mentioned.

The groups warn that consumers of Tesla vehicles have already been killed or injured because they misunderstood the safety and capabilities of Autopilot and claim that there is an abundance of Tesla consumers who brag about their vehicles’ “self-driving” abilities. They also say news and other media outlets also describe Autopilot as “self-driving.” The press release further alleges that “these realities prove that Tesla, with assistance from Elon Musk, has successfully deceived consumers into believing that Autopilot is more than an assist system.”

Deadly Tesla Autopilot Crashes

The death of a Tesla driver on March 1, 2019 in Delray Beach, Florida was almost identical to the fatality three years earlier in Williston, Florida of another Tesla driver. In both instances, the groups say an overreliance on features that were deceptively described as an “Autopilot” directly contributed to their deaths.

We brought you this tragic story earlier this year:

The Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog are asking the FTC and the state Attorneys General in California, New York, Florida, Michigan, Utah, and Massachusetts to open formal investigations into what they call “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.” Both are urging swift action in order to prevent further tragedies.

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