Consumers Union: Tesla must improve safety of “Autopilot” driver-assist system

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Director of Cars and Product Policy and Analysis
Senior Policy Analyst
Sr. Director, Strategic Communications

 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Advocacy division of Consumer Reports calls on Tesla to improve safety and disclose safety data after fatal crash

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, today called on Tesla to move quickly to improve the safety of its “Autopilot” driver-assist system and to publicly release the detailed data behind the company’s safety claims. The company recently acknowledged that this technology was engaged at the time of a recent fatal crash in California, and on Tuesday it was reported that the company commented directly on the safety of its system and what it described as “moral and legal liability” in the crash. This is at least the second crash death that has happened with the Autopilot system engaged.

CR experts have determined that Autopilot does not limit its use to only driving circumstances for which it is safe for the system to operate. The experts also have found that Tesla’s system of monitoring whether a driver’s hands are on the wheel fails to effectively address the safety risks of foreseeable uses of the system, unlike certain other driver-assist systems involving automated steering and braking.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have launched investigations into the March 23 crash of a Tesla Model X on a California highway, in which a 38-year-old engineer and father of two lost his life.  It has been reported that Tesla is no longer participating in the NTSB’s investigation of the incident.

David Friedman, Director of Cars and Product Policy and Analysis for Consumers Union, said, “After another tragedy involving Autopilot, Tesla should commit to put safety first—and to stop using consumers as beta testers for unproven technology. While the results of the crash investigations will be critical to understanding all that contributed to this tragedy, previous NTSB findings already showed that Autopilot should do more to protect consumers. We see no excuse: Tesla should improve the safety of Autopilot without delay.

“Tesla markets itself as an innovator. It should not put lives at risk, damage its reputation, or risk the success of its systems—or driver assist technology as a whole—by failing to take steps that would better protect consumers’ safety. Further, the company should not make either specific or broad safety claims without providing the detailed data to back them up. They should show, not just tell, us how safe their system is.

“Instead of issuing a defensive Friday evening blog post or statements blaming the victim, Tesla should fix Autopilot’s design and be transparent about their safety claims. The company should publicly provide detailed data to demonstrate conditions for which its Autopilot system can safely operate. It should limit Autopilot’s operation only to those conditions, and have a far more effective system to sense, verify, and safely react when the human driver’s level of engagement in the driving task is insufficient or when the driver fails to react to warnings. If other companies can do it, Tesla should as well. Further, this would fulfill the NTSB recommendations made more than six months ago.”

On the basis of CR’s research and testing of early automated driving technologies, Consumer Reports and Consumers Union previously have called for automakers to make consumers aware of technology limitations and for there to be a safe fallback when drivers overestimate the capabilities of driver assist-systems, and also specifically have called for Tesla to only allow the Autopilot system to be used in the situations for which it can safely operate.

In addition, Consumers Union urged the U.S. Senate and NHTSA to take action in response to the NTSB’s September 2017 recommendations and require critical safeguards in vehicles with partially or conditionally automated driving technologies. The NTSB’s recommendations included that the Department of Transportation and NHTSA should develop and issue mandatory performance standards for these systems and ensure better collection of crash data. The NTSB also recommended that manufacturers should limit (and NHTSA should verify that they have limited) the use of automated driving systems to appropriate circumstances, and develop systems to more effectively sense a human driver’s level of engagement and alert the driver when automated driving systems are in use and the driver is inattentive.

Working side by side with consumers, Consumers Union consistently has advocated for more responsible corporate behavior and more robust protections in the emerging automated vehicle space. Through research, testing, media, and advocacy, Consumer Reports and Consumers Union will continue to push all automakers to ensure their vehicles are safe, regardless of whether a human or an automated system is doing the driving.

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Contact: David Butler, dbutler@consumer.org, 202-462-6262, extension 7416

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. 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.