Tesla told to stop using “misleading term Autopilot” in Germany

Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) has asked Tesla to stop using the term ‘Autopilot’ to refer to its driver assistance technology because of the risk of misleading consumers about the capabilities of the technology.

According to a report in Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper yesterday, the KBA has written to Tesla asking the electric car company to stop using the term in order “to avoid misunderstandings and false customer expectations”.

A spokeswoman for the German Transport Minister confirmed the KBA’s action to Reuters, noting in a statement: “It can be confirmed that a letter to Tesla exists with the request to no longer use the misleading term Autopilot for the driver assistance system of the car.”

We’ve reached out to Tesla to ask whether it intends to comply with the request and will update this post with any response.

At issue is the fact Tesla’s technology does still require drivers to pay attention to the road, yet in the KBA’s view the term ‘Autopilot’ suggests a motorist can safely switch off their own brain and let the tech take all the driving strain.

It’s not the first time the Autopilot feature has been criticized in Germany. Earlier this month a study from Germany’s Federal Highway Research Institute dubbed the Autopilot feature of the Tesla Model S a “considerable traffic hazard” — and also attacked the fact its name suggests it’s a fully autonomous tech rather than an assistance system.

Tesla’s driver assistance system has been under increased scrutiny following reports of Tesla owners crashing when using the technology, including a fatal crash in Florida this summer where the driver had definitely engaged the Autopilot feature.

In the latter instance both the human driver and the assistance technology failed to notice the white side of a tractor trailer against “a brightly lit sky”, as Tesla described it in a blog post detailing the crash, meaning no brake was applied; the Model S Tesla drove partially under the trailer; and the trailer smashed into the windshield, killing the driver.

In the June blog post Tesla added: “This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated.”

A Tesla spokeswoman told Reuters the company has always made it clear to customers the assistance system requires drivers’ attention at all times, rebutting the KBA’s charge that ‘Autopilot’ is a misleading descriptor — pointing to the aerospace industry where she argued the term has long been used to describe a system operating in conjunction with a human.

“Just as in an airplane, when used properly, Autopilot reduces driver workload and provides an added layer of safety when compared to purely manual driving,” she said.

However the KBA is evidently unconvinced that all consumers will appreciate the distinction between the reality of industrial autopilot systems and the general perception of a word that can be used colloquially to refer to something operating without the need for human attention.

According to Reuters the agency has also written to Tesla owners in Germany to warn them their vehicles cannot be operated without constant attention and to emphasize that under traffic regulations they must remain alert at all times when driving.

Earlier this month CEO Elon Musk used the ‘Autopilot’ term in a tweet detailing how many cumulative miles have now been clocked up by Tesla drivers using the assistance technology — so there’s nothing to suggest the company has been having second thoughts about the branding of its driver assistance system.

Writing in the June blog post about the fatal Florida crash, the company was also at pains to point out the various checks and balances built into the system to try to ensure drivers are prepared to take over driving at any time, including detecting whether a driver’s hands are on the wheel or not:

It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.

But as more technologies become autonomous — or partially autonomous — the twin issues of safety and liability are only likely to loom larger.