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Autopilot's problems aren't all Tesla's fault, they're our own

Consumer Reports has called upon Tesla to disable a key feature in Autopilot. The fault, however, isn't so easy to pinpoint.

It's been less than a year since Tesla flipped the switch on Autopilot, bringing together a suite of driver assistance programs that, overnight, effectively took the Model S from remedial to the head of the class in active safety. Suddenly the car could park itself, speed up or slow down in traffic and, most controversially, steer itself.

Less than a week later we started seeing videos of people doing stupid things in their Teslas: playing games, napping and generally not paying attention. Tragically, we've since seen our first fatality of a driver in an Autopilot-enabled car. And while that rightfully should give us pause, it doesn't change the core fact: Autopilot is a driver assistance system, and a damned good one, but it's not a driver replacement system.

This morning, Consumer Reports published a haughty missive stating that Tesla's technology is "too much autonomy too soon." Consumer Reports, you may remember, is the outlet that said the Model S was so good it broke their review system, awarding the car the top two slots on its "Best Cars of 2015" list -- only to retract that view a few months later.

CR is now asking Tesla to disable one of Autopilot's key features: Autosteer. This is a heavy-handed response to the situation. It's also the wrong one. Here's why.

Don't blame Tesla, blame your local news

Consumer Reports pins the blame squarely upon Tesla for misrepresenting Autopilot, specifically for this blog post, called Your Autopilot Has Arrived, saying it presents a "dangerously premature assumption that the Model S was capable of truly driving on its own."

Read Tesla's post, top to bottom, and you'll see that's clearly not the case. Particularly this part:

"While truly driverless cars are still a few years away, Tesla Autopilot functions like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear. The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car."

I agree that certain Tesla statements have been hyperbolic, most egregious being Musk himself saying on a call that the car can drive itself from San Francisco to Seattle "without touching the controls at all."

However, if you want to blame someone for exaggerating Autopilot's capabilities, you should really look at any of the misguided news reports produced by local stations falling over themselves to breathlessly broadcast footage of people in cars doing jazz hands.

Here's one, calling it a "self-driving car":

Here's another, which goes further, calling it a "driverless car":

There are dozens more waiting for you on the other end of a little Googling. Say what you like about Tesla's marketing, but its own hyperbole doesn't touch your average local news outlet. Tesla may have created the hype train, but it's erroneous reporting like that above that pulled out the stops and drove it full-speed-ahead into the realm of fantasy. That, to me, is the bigger problem.

"Autopilot" isn't an inherently misleading name

Modern aircraft are pretty damned capable, able to cruise and even land largely under their own control. However, even the most-advanced is not fully autonomous. The FAA has a detailed guidelines describing appropriate, and inappropriate, use of autopilot functionality, and extensive regulations backing that up.

The FAA even recently issued guidance to commercial pilots, recommending they not get dependent on autopilot functionality.

Sayeth the FAA:

"When that automation reaches its limits and the autopilot hands back control of the aircraft to the pilot, the flight crew must be prepared and ready to respond."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Autopilot, then, is a pretty accurate name for the technology -- assuming you know what a real autopilot system does. The problem is that most people don't. Was Tesla taking advantage of consumer ignorance by selecting that name? This, I concede, is open to debate, but in my opinion, that quote about Autopilot being "like the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear" makes things pretty clear.

Regardless, the debate is largely moot, because the technology Consumer Reports is asking Tesla to disable is actually called "Autosteer."

We've been here before


It's rare that you can find a car without cruise control today, but back in the 1940s and '50s it was pretty novel stuff, given all sorts of highfalutin names like, ironically, "Auto-Pilot." A 1958 Popular Science article reviewing the Chrysler Imperial actually concluded the system, which maintains your current speed even when going up hills, would make you a safer, more alert driver.

Yes, there have been controversies surrounding cruise control in the past, and a number of over-arching names have been applied to the technology, but never have we had to face calls for regulations that would require people keep their feet on the gas or brake pedals at all times.

This isn't about failed technology

This controversy is about many things, but at its core, I firmly believe Autopilot is a technology that can and has saved lives. The problem is, we'll never know how many lives are being saved by the various active safety systems found in modern cars. We'll only know when they fail to save a life.

The root of the problem is distracted driving, and the only proper solution is fully autonomous cars. We're not there yet, but opportunistic reactions and the gratuitous spreading of fear, uncertainty and doubt will only push us further away from the goal of a car that's so good it doesn't even need a steering wheel.

We, the media, need to be focused on educating and accurately reporting, not on overstating the capabilities of a technology on the front-end and then condemning its failure to meet those unrealistic expectations on the rear. It's we, the media, who have allowed our colleagues to get this story wrong time and time again. Could Tesla have done more to correct every single overarching news reports across the country? Yes, but before we point fingers at Tesla or NHTSA or anyone else, it's time we started focusing on getting it right ourselves.