Consumer Reports on Thursday called for electric automaker Tesla to disable its semiautonomous autopilot mode in the wake of a May crash fatality in which autopilot failed to alert a driver of an oncoming vehicle.
“While the exact cause of the fatal accident is not yet known, the incident has caused safety advocates, including Consumer Reports, to question whether the name Autopilot, as well as the marketing hype of its roll-out, promoted a dangerously premature assumption that the Model S was capable of truly driving on its own,” the independent, nonprofit organization Consumer Reports wrote in a lengthy blog post.
Specifically, Consumer Reports asked Tesla to disable autopilot’s “autosteer” system, issue new guidance to drivers about the system’s use, discontinue beta releases of semiautonomous technology and rename the autopilot feature.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the cause of the crash that killed Model S owner Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio. In a letter sent Friday to the car company, NHTSA asked for all documentation related to the crash. The agency also requested information regarding the programming and manufacture of Tesla’s Automatic Emergency Braking system, a product designed to assist autopilot and prevent frontal collisions.
Tesla’s responses are due back to the federal authorities in part by July 29 and in full by Aug. 26. The company could face $21,000 in fines per day if it is late.
“By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports, said in the post. “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 on the wheel.”
In a statement provided to The Washington Post, Tesla said it would make its decisions regarding the future of the technology “on the basis of real-world data, not speculation by media.”
It also rebuffed mounting pressure to change the name the autopilot feature.
“Tesla Autopilot functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear,” the company said in its statement. “The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car. This is enforced with onboard monitoring and alerts. To further ensure drivers remain aware of what the car does and does not see, Tesla Autopilot also provides intuitive access to the information the car is using to inform its actions.”
Autopilot can be activated by pulling a lever, similar to lane-changing signals, while driving. Vehicles ask drivers to place their hands periodically on the steering wheel to confirm that they remain in control of the vehicle even as it steers itself.
In dire circumstances, the car will also immediately return complete control to the driver.
But even with those safeguards, industry analysts and safety advocates are beginning to ratchet up pressure on Tesla to alter autopilot, or at the very least, change its name.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with autopilot,” Kelley Blue Book analyst Michael Harley said, noting that the feature is semi, not fully, autonomous. “The biggest problem we have is that its name implies something that it doesn’t actually do.”
And with federal investigations under way and increased scrutiny on the company, Harley said it might be time for oft-defiant Tesla chief executive Elon Musk to rename the feature and reeducate consumers on its use.
“Within the next week or so, Tesla is going to have to make a move on this,” Harley said. “It’s pressure on Elon is above and beyond the stock market. This is a safety issue and its public perception issue. This is tarnishing the brand.”