Consumer Reports Urges Tesla to Hit Pause on Autopilot, But Brand Refuses

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Influential third-party evaluators giveth, and influential third-party evaluators taketh away. That’s what Tesla has been learning following a once-ringing endorsement by Consumer Reports that now has completely fallen apart with the automaker’s handling of the death of a Tesla driver using Autopilot.

The magazine has now called for Tesla to disable important aspects of its self-driving platform in the wake of the fatal crash in Florida, to be more complete in its testing of safety systems, and to turn down the hype machine when it comes to communicating with Tesla owners about Autopilot.

Tesla quickly denied Consumer Reports’ request, saying that it makes decisions based on “real-world data, not speculation by media.”

But, of course, it was “speculation” by the publication—namely, Consumer Reports’ implication that a new version of Model S released last fall was the best-quality car it ever had tested—that has helped Tesla achieve its remarkably high status in brand perception, has fuel continued sales increases for the Tesla Model S and new Model X SUV, and has assisted in the elevation of CEO Elon Musk to cult-hero status.

Consumer Reports noted the new “intense scrutiny” on Tesla in the wake of the death of Joshua Brown, a Tesla owner and enthusiast, in an accident in May in which the company told federal regulators that Autopilot was engaged. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and, reportedly, the Securities & Exchange Commission, are looking into various aspects of the wreck and Tesla’s handling of the news, and investigators are probing a couple of other recent accidents in which Autopilot may have been engaged.

The magazine wrote that it is questioning “whether the name Autopilot, as well as the marketing hype of its roll-out, promoted a dangerously premature assumption that the Model S was capable of truly driving on its own.” Its experts “believe that these two messages—your vehicle can drive itself, but you may need to take over the controls at a moment’s notice—create potential for driver confusion. It also increases the possibility that drivers using Autopilot may not be engaged enough to react quickly to emergency situations.”

“By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports, said in a story on the organization’s blog. “Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs.”

Therefore, Consumer Reports is demanding that Tesla:

  • Disable Autosteer, an important aspect of Autopilot, “until it can be reprogrammed to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel.”
  • Stop referring to the system as “Autopilot” because doing so “is misleading and potentially dangerous.”
  • Issue clearer guidance to owners on how the system should be used “and its limitations.”
  • Test all safety-critical systems before public deployment. “No more ‘beta’ releases.”

The magazine has turned against Tesla remarkably since it said last fall that it literally had no existing way to describe the superlative showing of the new, $127,820 performance version of the Model S, so it changed its existing ratings template to reflect how good the vehicle was.

Such kudos were priceless for the Tesla brand and sales, coming as they did from an organization that millions of Americans highly regard as a factual, meticulous and unbiased evaluator of automobiles.

But after feedback from Tesla owners on an annual predicted-reliability survey—with far less than glowing reports about how existing Model S vehicles actually performed—Consumer Reports knocked Model S down to “worse than average” in reliability.

Still, some pundits don’t believe that even the completion of the magazine’s 18o-degree turn on the wonders of Tesla will do much harm to the company or its brand. Consumer Reports’ opinion about Autopilot and Model S won’t much affect Tesla, argued Stephen Bradley, managing director of L2, an intelligence firm that benchmarks overall brand performance.

The fatal wreck “won’t slow down Tesla’s commitment to moving the technology forward aggressively, and will probably serve only to strengthen Tesla’s brand with consumers as the auto industry technology market leader,” Bradley told brandchannel.

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