Tesla has come under severe criticism on its marketing strategies to promote it's Model S and X vehicles. They've been accused of exaggerating the capabilities of the Tesla autopilot system in these vehicles. Is there any substance in the accusations?
This isn’t intended to be a play on semantics. But first, we’ve got to define the word “autopilot.”
What Does Autopilot in Vehicles Mean?
First, let’s eliminate ambiguity. So, what’s an autopilot? For this, I had help from “miss” Merriam Webster. Yeah, I’m talking about the dictionary.
The words "autopilot" and "automatic pilot" refer to a device that steers a ship, aircraft, or spacecraft. Instead of a person performing manual controls, this device or system automatically decides the behaviour or movement of a transport vehicle.
That definition suggests that a car considered to have autopilot functionality should be able to drive itself without the attention of the driver. Now that we’ve laid that foundation, let’s consider the accusations on Tesla.
Overview on the Tesla Autopilot Issue
According to the Tesla website, all vehicles produced from the Tesla factory, including the Model 3, "have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”
As you would expect, this same message reverberates in their other marketing materials. The electric car company asserts in its advertising that its cars have a “full self-driving” system. But do they, really?
A Tesla car driver died in a crash in March 2018. He had engaged his Tesla car on autopilot while he played games on his smartphone. The vehicle then ran into a barricade, leading to his death. This makes a case against the efficiency of Tesla’s self-driving hardware. And that’s not an isolated case; there were other similar accidents.
The Watchdogs Kick In
On the 23rd of May 2018, the Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the deceptive and misleading marketing and labelling of Tesla Motors' autopilot system products. Many buyers and owners of Tesla vehicles are led to believe that they can set their Tesla vehicles on autopilot and "go to sleep." This misconception compromises their safety and that of other road users.
The Center for Auto Safety pointed out that at least two people are dead and one injured in the United States as a result of Tesla's misleading claims. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also agreed that a driver's over-reliance and lack of understanding of the autopilot feature could lead to death.
In 2019, Germany’s Wettbewerbszentrale fair-competition group joined the campaign. They raised their objections against Tesla’s promise of “full self-driving capacity” in its cars. A court in Munich finally banned Tesla from including the terms “full potential for autonomous driving” and “autopilot inclusive" in all its advertorials on Tuesday on the 14th of July 2020.
The ruling added the term "autopilot" and other words in Tesla's advertisements that technically suggest that their vehicles can drive entirely autonomously which, as I've established in this post, isn't so.
BBC in its video “This car is on autopilot. What happens next?” shows how Tesla's so-called “autopilot” technology still requires the driver to remain alert at all times. But then again, not all Tesla car owners seem to realise this, and the watchdogs say Tesla’s advertising is to blame for that misconception.
Following the Munich ruling on Tuesday, the South Korean Fair Trade Commission also initiated an internal analysis of Tesla’s advertising. The heat is on.
Elon’s Response to the Accusations
Elon Musk tweeted that the Tesla Autopilot was literally named after the aviation term “autopilot,” which does not mean that pilots stop working when a plane’s autopilot feature is on. This comment suggests that the dictionary and Tesla define autopilot differently.
Based on Elon’s response, one could argue Tesla seems to have made an honest mistake. It is clearly stated in a Wikipedia article that an autopilot is not designed to replace human operators, but instead provides assistance in controlling the vehicle so that the driver or operator can focus on broader aspects of the operation.
Honest mistake or otherwise, something needs to be done about the situation to keep others from losing their lives. And that’s precisely what several Safety Advocates seem to be doing—they’re calling Tesla out and asking them to discontinue the use of the confusing messages.
The company's marketing and advertising habits, coupled with CEO Elon Musk's tweets and public statements, are indeed confusing to consumers. These false claims led Tesla owners to trust and act on the belief that a Tesla with an autopilot feature is an autonomous car capable of self-driving.
Investigators have already warned that more crashes could happen if the situation around Tesla vehicles remains unchecked.
Frankly, I'm a fan of Elon Musk, but this doesn't look good. The stock market doesn't seem ruffled by the news, though. After the court ruling on Tuesday, the 14th of July, Tesla stock price rallied 1.4%. Anyway, we hope to see what the FTC has to say about the whole issue soon and the impact this will have on the future of autonomous driving.
To conclude, if you own a Tesla car and you choose to go autopilot mode, please stay engaged.
It you love "driving" cars, it can be quite difficult to imagine owning one that's capable of going without you on the wheel. But that's the direction many automakers are taking. You may want to read our articles on the Waymo-Volvo robocar, the pros and cons of driverless cars, and why the liquor industry is interested in getting autonomous vehicles on the road! Check out the latest news regularly at Carpart.com.au!
By Damilare Olasinde