Consumer, auto-safety advocates call on FTC to investigate Mercedes-Benz for ads about “self-driving” cars

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Letter-to-FTC-on-Mercedes-E-Class-ad-7-27-2016.pdf | 77.6 KB

Groups say ads likely to mislead a reasonable consumer by representing the E-Class vehicle as self-driving when it is not, ads could give consumers “false sense of security”

WASHINGTON, D.C.  — Consumer and auto safety advocates today called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and take action against Mercedes-Benz for the advertising of its 2017 E-Class vehicles.  The groups said the marketing of the E-Class “is likely to mislead a reasonable consumer by representing the E-Class as self-driving when it is not,” and could give consumers “a false sense of security in the ability of the car to operate autonomously.”

The letter to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez was signed by Consumer Reports, the Center for Auto Safety, Consumer Federation of America, and Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The advocates pointed to a current Mercedes-Benz TV ad called “The Future,” which markets automated features available in the 2017 E-Class.  A narrator’s voice-over says: “Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself? An autonomous-thinking automobile that protects those inside and outside.  Ready or not, the future is here.”

The groups noted that NHTSA classifies self-driving vehicles as those “in which operation of the vehicle occurs without direct driver input to control the steering, acceleration, and braking and are designed so that the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway while operating in self-driving mode.”

The groups told the FTC’s Ramirez: “The E-Class does not meet the definition of either a fully or partially self-driving car, yet it is marketed in a way that a reasonable consumer would believe it does.  In addition to a consumer possibly purchasing a car while being misled about its capabilities, the misrepresentations by Mercedes-Benz could give consumers a false sense of security in the ability of the car to operate autonomously.   This misrepresentation is material because it significantly involves safety or is likely to affect a consumer’s conduct or decision with regard to the car.”

The TV ad includes fine-print language that includes the statement “Vehicle cannot drive itself, but has automated driving features,” but the groups noted that FTC guidance says “advertisers can’t use fine print to contradict other statements in an ad or clear up false impressions the ad might leave.”  

The advocates said the FTC “should take enforcement action against companies that falsely, misleadingly, or unfairly claim that their cars drive autonomously when they actually require the steady control of a human driver.”

The full letter to the FTC is available online here. [https://consumersunion.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Letter-to-FTC-on-Mercedes-E-Class-ad-7-27-2016.pdf]

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Contacts: David Butler, dbutler@consumer.org, 202-462-6262, or C. Matt Fields, cfields@consumer.org, 914-378-2454

Consumers Union is the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.  Consumers Union works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization.  Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually.  Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications.