IIHS: Semi-autonomous brand names are confusing customers

(Bloomberg) -- Automakers including Tesla Inc. are stoking confusion among motorists by choosing names for their automated-driving systems that wrongly suggest they’re more capable than is actually the case, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Almost half of respondents to an IIHS survey considered it safe to drive with their hands off the steering wheel when using a system called Autopilot, the nonprofit vehicle-safety advocate said Thursday. That’s the name Tesla chose for its driver-assistance system that’s been in use during several fatal crashes since 2016.

“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,” IIHS President David Harkey said in a statement. “Manufacturers should consider what message the names of their systems send to people.”

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The steering wheel of a Tesla Inc. Model S P100D electric vehicle (EV) is seen at the EV Trend Korea exhibition in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, April 12, 2018. The exhibition runs through April 15. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has billed Tesla as a leader in autonomous driving, telling investors last month that the technology will be “transformative” and a catalyst for the company to eventually be worth a half-trillion dollars.

But the day before Musk made that pitch to prospective buyers of new stock and debt, a Tesla Model 3 driver died when his sedan slammed into the side of a semi-truck that was crossing a highway in Florida. A U.S. regulator revealed weeks later that Autopilot was engaged at the time of the collision, and the driver’s hands weren’t on the wheel for eight seconds prior to impact.

Consumer Reports, which called for Tesla to drop the name Autopilot three years earlier following a similar fatal crash in Florida, said last month that the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should open an inquiry to determine whether Autopilot is defective and poses unreasonable safety risk.

Survey SaysIn its survey, IIHS asked 2,000 drivers what maneuvers they consider to be safe while using driver-assist technologies, using names companies have given their systems. The nonprofit didn’t tell participants in the survey the vehicle brands associated with each name and weren’t given information about the systems.

Other names included in the survey were Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, BMW’s Driving Assistant Plus, Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Audi’s Traffic Jam Assist.

“Automakers need to take care when they name a system of not implying that the driver can be out of the loop -- that these are driver-assistance systems, not driver-replacement systems,” Harkey said in a phone interview.

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