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Survey finds Tesla Autopilot's capabilities dangerously confusing

Would you let Tesla’s Autopilot completely take over driving for you? After all, an Autopilot is a computer that drives the car for you, right?

Unfortunately, in this case the answer is no. Tesla’s Autopilot system is not a driver replacement system. It is not safe to let your attention lag while using it.

According to the user manual, Tesla’s Autopilot is not intended to take over the driver’s responsibilities. It is a “hands on” feature -- drivers should always have both hands on the wheel and their attention on the road.

Recently, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) surveyed 2,000 drivers to find out what they thought driver-assist technologies could safely do. They asked the drivers to say, for example, whether they would allow specific, named driver-assist systems to fully take over. The IIHS gave the names, although not the automakers, of five auto-assist technologies:

  • Tesla’s Autopilot
  • Nissan’s ProPilot Assist
  • BMW’s Driving Assistant Plus
  • Cadillac’s Super Cruise
  • Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist

Almost half the drivers believed it would be safe to take their hands off the steering while when using a system called “Autopilot,” but not the other driver-assist systems.

“Tesla’s user manual says clearly that the Autopilot’s steering function is a ‘hands-on feature,’ but that message clearly hasn’t reached everybody,” the IIHS said in a statement. “Manufacturers should consider what message the names of their systems send to people.”

Dangerous confusion behind the wheel

The confusion about the capabilities of the Autopilot system has had dangerous results. Several deadly crashes have been reported where the driver was using Tesla’s Autopilot and took their attention away from the road. Last month, for example, the driver of a Tesla Model 3 was killed when the car struck the side of a semi-truck that had been crossing the highway.

According to federal investigators, the Autopilot system was engaged and the driver had taken his hands off the wheel before impact.

The Autopilot system can’t prevent all accidents. In previous accidents, the system has failed to notice large trucks on one end of the spectrum, and pedestrians on the other.

The name “Autopilot” has been controversial for years, and recently Consumer Reports asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate whether the system, as named, is unreasonably dangerous or even defective.

Do you think it’s unreasonably dangerous for Tesla to call its system an “Autopilot” when it isn’t meant to take over for the driver? It certainly has led to dangerous confusion.

People who have been injured while using Tesla’s Autopilot feature should discuss their situation with an attorney who handles product liability cases.

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