Hurry up and bar Tesla from using the Autopilot name in marketing, consumer group tells DMV

The California Department of Motor Vehicles put forth proposed regulations that would, in effect, prohibit Tesla from using the Autopilot name to market its vehicles. That was in September.

Now, a consumer group is telling the DMV to get on with it.

Tesla uses the word Autopilot to describe its driver-assist technology, which, when enabled, automatically steers, brakes and passes other vehicles.

Consumer Watchdog, based in Santa Monica, contends Tesla is misleading consumers by exaggerating Autopilot’s capabilities.

The DMV should “enact a regulation protecting consumers from misleading advertising that leaves the dangerous — and sometimes fatal — impression that a car is more capable of driving itself than is actually the case,” John M. Simpson, privacy policy director at Consumer Watchdog, said in a Nov. 23 letter to the agency’s director, Jean Shiomoto.

The letter points out the oft-cited death of a Tesla driver last May, who was using Autopilot when his car crashed into a big rig. The group also put out a video highlighting what the group calls Tesla exaggerations with clips that include Musk driving with his hands off the wheel.

The rule the DMV is considering would apply to all carmakers. Under the proposal, words including “self-driving” and “auto-pilot” would be banned along with anything “likely to induce a reasonably prudent person to believe a vehicle is autonomous” — that is, drivable without human interaction.

The proposal is part of a much larger package of rules and regulations drafted by the DMV and issued in September. The agency is considering public and expert comments on the proposals.

Simpson said because the regulations package won’t take effect for at least a year, the DMV should address the marketing issue immediately because it is “potentially life saving.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk shows no sign of backing down from the use of the Autopilot name. In fact, the company continues to add to its capabilities, with a major software upgrade expected before the end of the year.

Tesla insists that, while crashes are inevitable, statistics show that semi-autonomous driving is safer than driving with no robotic assist. Thus far, the May crash is the only reported fatality involving Autopilot.

A Tesla spokeswoman responded Monday: “Tesla owners have communicated that they understand how Autopilot works and should be used, and this is clearly explained and reinforced every time a customer uses the feature. The inaccurate and sensationalistic view of Autopilot put forth by this group is exactly the kind of misinformation that threatens to harm consumer safety.”

The DMV said it “released revised draft regulations for the public use of autonomous vehicles in September 2016, which suggest banning terms ‘self-driving’, ‘automated’, and “’auto-pilot’ if the vehicle is not autonomous.  The department is concerned with the risks of driver complacency and misuse of lower level systems where drivers are expected to remain fully engaged in the driving task.”

 

russ.mitchell@latimes.com

Twitter: @russ1mitchell


UPDATES:

This article was updated to include a response from the DMV.

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