Tesla Motors’ cars kinda drive themselves, but its Autopilot technology has caused some headaches for the company. Consumer Reports called on Tesla to recall the feature, calling it “too much autonomy, too soon.” A Florida man died in a crash while using Autopilot.
And now, German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt asked Tesla to ditch the term “Autopilot,” arguing it can lead consumers to think the car is far more capable than it is.
Before going further, a note: Model S and Model X vehicles with Autopilot can stay in their lane and maintain a safe speed. The technology is meant for highways, where there are fewer obstacles to deal with, and requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and remain alert. Autopilot is designed to assist drivers, not replace them.
The electric automaker said nein to Dobrindt. In a statement, the company said it duly warns drivers of the system’s limits (whether drivers pay attention is another matter). And it defended using the word autopilot: “This is how the term has been used for decades in aerospace: to denote a support system that operates under the direct supervision of a human pilot.”
Tesla joins Mercedes in earning a rebuke for how it promotes this technology. Last summer, Mercedes-Benz pulled an ad campaign that described the new E-Class as “self-driving.” Like Tesla’s cars, the German sedan can handle itself in simple situations like highway driving, but most definitely requires a human at the wheel.
Such scuffles are the opening salvos in the inevitable battle between automakers eager to brand their autonomous tech, consumers who just want to know what it can do, and regulators seeking middle ground.
In the next few years, shopping for a luxury car will mean parsing terms like Drive Pilot (Mercedes), Traffic Jam Assist (Ford and Audi), Driving Assistant Plus (BMW), Supercruise (Cadillac), Automated Highway Driving Assist (Lexus), and IntelliSafe Autopilot (Volvo). These terms describe roughly the same thing: a car that can hold its lane and maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.
As automakers develop cars that drive themselves for real, you can bet those terms will become more common—and more confusing, which explains why regulators are stepping in