Two US senators have called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Tesla over concerns the automaker is misleading people by exaggerating or misrepresenting the abilities of its vehicles' Autopilot and Full-Self Driving (FSD) features.
Sens. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) put out a public letter [PDF] addressed to FTC boss Lina Khan on Wednesday. In it, the lawmakers claimed "Tesla’s marketing has repeatedly overstated the capabilities of its vehicles, and these statements increasingly pose a threat to motorists and other users of the road."
The problem, it seems, is that Autopilot is an enhanced cruise-control, and FSD just simply isn't FSD, though people may be getting the wrong impression from Telsa's promotions.
“We fear that Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD features are not as mature and reliable as the company pitches to the public,” the senators continued.
“On April 22, 2019, Tesla posted a video on its YouTube channel titled 'Full Self-Driving' showing a Tesla driving entirely on its own. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also repeatedly boasted about Tesla’s systems. In July 2020 and again in January 2021, Mr Musk claimed to consumers that Tesla vehicles would soon reach Level 5 autonomy, or full automation.
“Unfortunately, Tesla’s advertising and marketing is reaching a large audience: the 'Full Self-Driving' video has been viewed more than 18 million times. While Tesla has buried qualifying disclaimers elsewhere on their website, the link in the video’s caption redirects to a purchasing page that fails to provide additional information about the true capabilities of the vehicle.”
The senators were also unimpressed that Tesla buried warnings about its software in its release notes – which would tell drivers to use "additional caution" because the system "may do the wrong thing at the worst time" – and that Musk would tweet about "unknown issues" in the code and that Tesla owners should be "paranoid" when using the tech.
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Despite Musk’s insistence that Tesla vehicles are close to being completely autonomous, documents filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles revealed FSD is only at Level 2 autonomy. At this level, the car can take control to some degree though drivers must have both hands on the wheel and be prepared to take over at any time. Similarly, Autopilot is also Level 2, and FSD is effectively an upgrade from Autopilot.
Specifically, Tesla claims Autopilot offers traffic-aware cruise control, and can automatically steer between clearly marked lanes on a road. FSD adds things like automatic lane changing and parking, and summoning of a vehicle, it is alleged.
As the senators put it:
Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD are partially automated and include lane keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control features that can help prevent driver stress and fatigue when properly used. They are not fully autonomous features, however, and there are no fully autonomous vehicles currently available on the market.
The letter comes just after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced an official investigation into Tesla after a string of car accidents occurred with vehicles with the Autopilot mode activated.
It also comes a day before the automaker holds its annual Tesla AI Day on Thursday, August 19. Elon Musk is expected to give a keynote speech to talk about some of the AI technology in use in its vehicles and a preview of what's still under development.
Looking at holding Tesla AI Day in about a month or so. Will go over progress with Tesla AI software & hardware, both training & inference. Purpose is recruiting.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 21, 2021
We'd ask Tesla for comment but it scrapped its PR department and doesn't deal with journalists any more. Get in touch, Elon, if you want to comment – thanks. ®