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article imageOp-Ed: Should Tesla drop the misleading word 'autopilot' from its name?

By Karen Graham     Jul 15, 2016 in Technology
On Thursday, Consumer Reports said that Tesla should drop the word "Autopilot" because it is misleading consumers, giving them too much trust in the car's ability to drive itself.
Business Insider is reporting that the influential consumer products magazine said not only should Tesla drop the word "Autopilot' from its name, but also disconnect the automatic steering system.
The magazine says the semi-autonomous driving system needs to be updated to make sure a driver's hands are on the wheel at all times. Currently, Tesla vehicles with the Autopilot function warn drivers if their hands have been off the wheel for a few minutes.
In an email, a Tesla spokesperson said the company has no plans to change the name and that data it collects show drivers who use Autopilot are safer than those who don't.
On a related note, Elon Musk tweeted on Thursday: "Onboard vehicle logs show Autopilot was turned off in Pennsylvania crash. Moreover, the crash would not have occurred if it was on." Musk was referring to the crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike last week involving a Tesla Model X.
Growing debate over autonomous driving technology
With this latest report, Consumer Reports has now joined the discussion over autonomous driving technology. It is interesting that Consumer Reports refers to Tesla's Autopilot system as semi-autonomous. So the big question on people's minds is what category does Tesla's "Autopilot" feature go under?
First, before we categorize anything, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on January 15, unofficially classified 5 levels of autonomy for all vehicles, depending on the level of technology on board. They are as follows:
Level 0: The driver completely controls the vehicle at all times.
Level 1: Individual vehicle controls are automated, such as electronic stability control or automatic braking.
Level 2: At least two controls can be automated in unison, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane keeping.
Level 3: The driver can fully cede control of all safety-critical functions in certain conditions. The car senses when conditions require the driver to retake control and provides a “sufficiently comfortable transition time” for the driver to do so.
Level 4: The vehicle performs all safety-critical functions for the entire trip, with the driver not expected to control the vehicle at any time. As this vehicle would control all functions from start to stop, including all parking functions, it could include unoccupied cars.
Based on the NHTSA's classification system, most vehicles on today's highways would fall under Level 0. In other words, the driver behind the wheel is fully responsible for the vehicle at all times.
Level 1 would mean that most driving functions are still the driver's responsibility, but some individual controls are automated, like braking or electronic stability controls.
Level 2 means that two functions are automated, such as cruise control and lane centering. In other words, this means the "driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off the pedal at the same time."
Level 3 means that a driver is still needed behind the wheel, but under certain traffic or environmental conditions, they can completely shift "safety-critical functions" to the vehicle. This also means that while the driver must still be present, monitoring the driving situation is not quite the same as it would be at Level 2.
Level 4 is "fully autonomous." According to the Department of Transportation, level 4 vehicles are "designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip." It's what Tesla says will be available by 2018.
So where does the Tesla Autopilot fit into the NHTSA's categories? First of all, the word itself is a misnomer because it is an electronic control system, such as on an aircraft, spacecraft, or ship, that automatically maintains a preset heading and attitude.
While Musk's Space X Dragon spacecraft may use a true autopilot, the system in the Tesla cars is more likely to fit into the NHTSA's Level 3 category. And to give credit where it is due, Tesla Motors has stated a number of times that "drivers must acknowledge that it's an 'assist feature' that requires both hands on the wheel at all times."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about tesla autopilot, Consumer reports, Misleading, semiautonomous, Nhtsa
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