Consumer Reports calls on Tesla to disable auto steering

In the wake of a fatal crash that has prompted investigations by a couple of federal agencies, Consumer Reports is urging Tesla to disable automatic steering in its Autopilot technology — and rename Autopilot while it’s at it.

Saying the magazine questions whether the name Autopilot and the hype around it “promoted a dangerously premature assumption that the Model S was capable of truly driving on its own,” Consumer Reports also called on the Palo Alto electric-car maker to more clearly explain to users the system’s limitations, and even to stop beta releases.

“By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” says Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports, in the magazine’s report. “In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer. But today, we’re deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology.”

Tesla provided Consumer Reports with the following response:

“Tesla is constantly introducing enhancements, proven over millions of miles of internal testing, to ensure that drivers supported by Autopilot remain safer than those operating without assistance. We will continue to develop, validate, and release those enhancements as the technology grows. While we appreciate well-meaning advice from any individual or group, we make our decisions on the basis of real-world data, not speculation by media.”

Consumer Reports’ pronouncements about Tesla throughout the years have been influential. The Model S has topped the magazine’s owner-satisfaction survey. The magazine has given the Model S an off-the-charts rating after a test-drive, saying last August that “Tesla P85D is the best car we’ve tested in 80 years of testing cars.” A couple of months later, however, Tesla shares plunged after the magazine withdrew its recommendation for the Model S, citing questions about its reliability.

After the May 7 crash that resulted in the death of Model S owner Joshua Brown while the car was in Autopilot mode — which is under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board — Consumer Reports’ MacCleery says: “Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs.”

Recently, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk told the Wall Street Journal that his company had no plans to disable Autopilot. The feature, which is turned off by default, was introduced last year and allows for some automatic steering, lane changes and braking. Musk told the Journal that Tesla will be publishing a blog post further explaining how Autopilot works.