Consumer Reports Calls on Tesla to Disable Autopilot Features

17Tesla_Model-S_OEM_04.jpg 2017 Tesla Model S | Manufacturer image

CARS.COM — In the wake of questions raised by a fatal crash in May, Consumer Reports called on Tesla to disable some self-driving features of its Autopilot system and to dial back marketing hype, which CR says leads people to assume the car truly can drive itself.

“By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” said Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for CR. “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.”

Related: Tesla’s Musk Stands Behind Autopilot, Will Increase Customer Education

The crash, in which the system failed to see a semitrailer crossing the road, is under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has asked for more information about the Autopilot technology. The driver, Joshua Brown of Canton, Ohio, was killed.

The editorial appeared just a day after Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in an interview that the company has no plans to disable Autopilot features and the company has defended the system as increasing safety. 

In its statement regarding the fatal crash, the company emphasized that Autopilot must be turned on by the driver, and it “requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.” That acknowledgement, it said, includes an explanation that the driver must keep hands on the steering wheel and is responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle.

“Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs,” MacCleery said. CR said that a particular problem is the amount of time the automatic steering lets drivers have their hands off the wheel, which in their experience on a straight road could be three minutes before a prompt from the system. And it pointed to research showing that when technology lets a drivers’ attention wander, drivers are slow to recognize when they need to take control.

“Tesla should disable automatic steering in its cars until it updates the program to verify that the driver’s hands are on the wheel,” she said.

CR named the Model S its overall best car pick of 2015 based on road test results but, in October, withdrew its “recommended” designation from the car for reliability issues.

In an email response to CR, the company wrote, “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.”

CR said the email also defended the safety of Autopilot, writing that “130 million miles have been driven on Autopilot, with one confirmed fatality” and emphasizing that beta software development process includes “significant internal validation.”

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Former D.C. Bureau Chief Fred Meier, who lives every day with Washington gridlock, has an un-American love of small wagons and hatchbacks. Email Fred Meier

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