Can a car crash be a marketing problem? Tesla’s Autopilot has been involved in at least 3 serious accidents in two years. Consumer advocates say the company’s deceptive advertising is misleading consumers, convincing them they can take their eyes off the road.
Does Tesla’s Autopilot Turn Cars into Autonomous Vehicles?
Tesla’s Autopilot system was first released in 2015. According to the company’s website:
“All Tesla vehicles produced in our factory, including Model 3, have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.”
Through a network of cameras, sensors, and computers, Tesla’s Autopilot system is designed to match speed to nearby traffic, keep the vehicle in its lane, automatically change lanes, handle highway interchanges, park itself, and “be summoned to and from your garage.” Tesla says the Autopilot has Full Self-Driving Capability and:
“The system is designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat.”
But the company says the software was never intended to be fully autonomous. Buried in the middle of promises that the Autopilot will take you where you need to go, the website says:
“Every driver is responsible for remaining alert and active when using Autopilot, and must be prepared to take action at any time.”
When they don’t, drivers can end up facing a full-speed collision resulting in serious injury, or even death.
Fatal Accidents Involving Tesla’s Autopilot Raise Safety Concerns
In 2016, the Tesla Autopilot was involved in a fatal auto accident in Florida. Joshua Brown was killed when his Tesla Model S ran into the back of a tractor-trailer that pulled in front of him. The vehicle was in Autopilot mode, so neither Brown nor the vehicle hit the brakes.
Then, in March 2018, a Tesla Model X in Autopilot mode slammed itself into a freeway median on Highway 101 in Mountain View, California. The owner, an Apple engineer named Walter Huang, was killed in the crash. He is reported to have complained to family that the vehicle would veer off course before the accident.
In addition to the fatal incidents, a Utah woman broke her foot when her Tesla Model S ran a red light and hit a fire truck at 60 miles per hour. Given the high speed of the collision, she could have suffered far worse. The 28 year old driver said she was looking at her phone at the time.
Consumer Advocates Call Tesla’s Autopilot Deceptive Advertising.
The deaths and injuries have caused concern among the consumer advocates including Consumer Watchdog and the Center for Auto Safety. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission dated May 23, 2018, the organizations said:
“Two Americans are dead and one is injured as a result of Tesla deceiving and misleading consumers into believing that the Autopilot feature of its vehicles is safer and more capable than it actually is.”
The consumer advocates said Tesla’s Autopilot advertising campaign – along with the statements of owner Elon Musk – make it reasonable for owners to believe that Tesla’s Autopilot is an autonomous vehicle system, and that it will be entirely “self-driving”.
After the Florida accident, the National Highway Transportation Safety Board did an independent investigation and determined that over-reliance on the Autopilot feature, and lack of understanding about how it works, can cause death. The consumer advocates said that over-reliance is a consequence of deceptive advertising by the company.
The consumer advocates are asking the FTC to investigate Tesla Motors, Inc., for deceptive advertising under the Federal Trade Commission Act that markets the Autopilot feature as fully autonomous, even though it is only capable of SAE Level 2 automation and requires an attentive human driver at all times. That advertising could cause drivers to rely on the vehicle’s self-driving features in ways the system cannot handle. And that could result in even more deaths at the “hands” of Tesla’s Autopilot.
Dani K. Liblang is a consumer protection attorney at The Liblang Law Firm, PC, in Birmingham, Michigan. She represents the victims of deceptive marketing. If you have been seriously injured because a product or vehicle did not live up to its manufacturer’s promises, contact The Liblang Law Firm, PC, for a free consultation.