Consumer Reports calls on Tesla to disable and update auto steering function, remove “Autopilot” name
Consumer Reports is calling on Tesla to disable the automatic steering function in the Autopilot driving-assist system available in its Model S vehicles until the company updates the function to confirm that the driver’s hands remain on the steering wheel at all times.
The consumer organization, which has owned and tested three Teslas (2013 Model S 85, 2014 Model S P85D, and 2016 Model X 90D), said that 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 is far from a Tesla-basher. The organization ranked the all-wheel-drive Tesla Model S P85D as the best performing car it has ever tested, calling it “an automotive milepost. It’s a remarkable car that paves a new, unorthodox course, and it’s a powerful statement of American startup ingenuity.” The organization has also begun to note reliability issues with the Teslas, however.
Tesla is now under scrutiny for how it deployed and marketed the Autopilot system after a series of crashes. Federal safety officials are investigating a fatal crash involving a Tesla and a tractor-trailer in Florida. (Earlier post.)
By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security. 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.—Laura MacCleery, Vice President of Consumer Policy and Mobilization for Consumer Reports
Specifically, Consumer Reports is calling for Tesla to do each of the following:
Disable the Autosteer function of the Autopilot system until it can be reprogrammed to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel.
Stop referring to the system as “Autopilot” as it is misleading and potentially dangerous.
Issue clearer guidance to owners on how the system should be used and its limitations.
Test all safety-critical systems fully before public deployment; no more Beta releases. Consumer Reports has seen first-hand how such “beta” software is transmitted wirelessly into the Teslas. When software in a desktop computer or handheld electronic devices is labeled as “beta,” it is typically means that functionality is not fully developed and is still being fine-tuned, the organization noted.
Consumer Reports contacted Tesla about these 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.” The company underscored that its beta software development process includes “significant internal validation.”
Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent a letter to Tesla requesting detailed information about Autopilot, including any design changes and updates to the system, as well as detailed logs of when the system has prompted drivers to take over steering. The Securities and Exchange Commission is reportedly investigating whether Tesla failed to tell investors about the crash in a timely fashion.
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. At the same time, regulators urgently need to step up their oversight of cars with these active safety features. NHTSA should insist on expert, independent third-party testing and certification for these features, and issue mandatory safety standards to ensure that they operate safely.—Laura MacCleery
In the aftermath of the Autopilot fatality, other consumer organizations have begun calling for a general slow-down in the rollout of autonomous driving technologies.
A coalition of auto safety advocates earlier this week called on President Obama to stop his “administration’s undue haste to get autonomous vehicle technology to the road” until enforceable safety standards are in place. They said the administration’s autonomous vehicle “guidance”—expected next week—should not be issued.
“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’s letter to Obama said.
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 advocates also said Tesla should disable Autopilot until it is proven safe. Noting that both Volvo and Mercedes have said they will accept liability when their self-driving technology is responsible for a crash, the safety advocates called on Tesla make the same pledge if autopilot is offered in the future. They called for the manufactures of all self- driving cars to take responsibility for crashes cause by their autonomous technologies.