Tesla’s Autopilot feature could soon face its second federal probe of the month.
The automaker’s driver-assist and traffic-aware cruise control features are already under investigation by federal safety regulators for their role in a series of crashes. On Wednesday Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into the claims made by Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk about Autopilot and the company’s full self-driving, or FSD, feature. They want the FTC to determine whether those claims amount to deceptive marketing practices.
“We fear that Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD features are not as mature and reliable as the company pitches to the public,” the two Democratic senators said in a letter to Lina Khan, chair of the FTC.
“Tesla and Mr. Musk’s repeated overstatements of their vehicle’s capabilities — despite clear and frequent warnings — demonstrate a deeply concerning disregard for the safety of those on the road and require real accountability,” the letter continued. “Their claims put Tesla drivers — and all of the traveling public — at risk of serious injury or death.”
The two senators have been frequent critics of Tesla’s Autopilot. Just this past Monday, the duo cheeredz the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s investigation into a series of crashes involving Teslas hitting emergency vehicles while using the Autopilot feature.
Tesla and Musk have repeatedly claimed cars using Autopilot are safer than when driven by humans. Although the company and its high-profile boss have held out the promise of Teslas someday being fully autonomous, the website still cautions that “Autopilot and Full Self-Driving capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver,” who is “prepared to take over at any moment.” The warning goes on to note that the company expects the technologies to become more effective, but states that “the currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous.”
The FTC is charged with investigating complaints of deceptive claims made by companies and take enforcement action against “unfair and deceptive acts or practices.” The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tesla (TSLA) also did not respond a request for comment about the senators’ push for a probe.
Musk is a strong advocate of self-driving technology. The current federal probe and call for a second one come as Musk prepares for Tesla’s”AI Day” on Thursday to talk about advances in the company’s artificial intelligence and the promise of self-driving.
Tesla’s Autopilot feature, a standard offering on all Teslas currently for sale, is designed to match the speed of the car to that of surrounding traffic, slowing the vehicle automatically if the traffic slows and accelerating to a pre-set speed when congestion clears. It also keeps the car in its lane when there are clear road markings, such as on highways, and can even automatically change lanes.
The FSD feature is an extra option that is still under development by Tesla.
Autopilot is similar to the adaptive cruise control, lane assistance and auto braking features available in many other car brands.
Even though safety advocates are in favor of these kinds of crash-avoidance features, many have long been critical of Tesla’s use of the term “Autopilot,” saying it encourages drivers to become inattentive despite the formal warnings that drivers should stay alert. There are videos of Tesla drivers sleeping behind the wheel, reading and even having sex, as well as videos of the cars operating without anyone in the driver’s seat.
Blumenthal and Markey echoed those concerns about the Autopilot and FSD features encouraging dangerous behavior.
“Tesla drivers listen to these claims and believe their vehicles are equipped to drive themselves — with potentially deadly consequences,” they said, citing reports of 11 deaths involving Tesla crashes when Autopilot was engaged.