Tesla Autopilot, Full-Self Driving misleading marketing

Occurred: 2020-

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Tesla has been regularly dogged by accusations that it has systematically over-stated the capabilities of its Autopilot and Full-Self Driving (FSD) systems, and under-stated their role in accidents. 

Misleading names

A number of regulators have argued that the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving names are misleading given each requires drivers to pay attention and be able to intervene at any time. 

US crash statistics reporting

In June 2023, a Washington Post investigation of US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that there had been 736 crashes and 17 fatalities involving Teslas in Autopilot mode in the US since 2019, many more than previously reported. 

Four crashes involved motorcycles. According to the same Post investigation, Tesla accounted for the 'vast majority' of the 807 incidents reported to the NHTSA under a 2021 federal order that requires carmakers to disclose crashes involving driver-assistance technology. 

Germany misleading marketing lawsuit

In 2020, a Munich court ruled that Tesla use of the words 'Autopilot' and 'Full Self-Driving' constituted misleading marketing, since the cars still required a driver to operate. The appeal ruling was over-turned by the Higher Regional Court of Munich in October 2022, according to TeslaMag.

California DMV legal communication

In March 2021 it was reported that Tesla knew and admitted that its Full Self-Driving Capability is not capable of full self-driving. The emails between Tesla's legal team and California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) were revealed after a public records request from transparency advocacy organisation Plainsite.

NTSB calls for tighter testing requirements

A few days after Plainsite published the Tesla/DMV legal communications, US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) head Robert Sumwalt warned its sister agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that it's 'hands-off approach to oversight of AV testing poses a potential risk to motorists and other road users.' 

'Tesla recently released a beta version of its Level 2 Autopilot system, described as having full self-driving capability. By releasing the system, Tesla is testing on public roads a highly automated AV technology but with limited oversight or reporting requirements,' Sumwalt argued.

California DMV misleading marketing investigation

In May 2021, the LA Times reported that California's DMV has put Tesla 'under review' to determine whether it misleads customers by advertising its full self-driving capability option. The DMV is allowed to sanction car manufacturers that advertise a vehicle as autonomous when it is not.

In complaints filed with the state Office of Administrative Hearings, the DMV argued that Tesla 'made or disseminated statements that are untrue or misleading, and not based on facts' about how well its advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) worked.

Tesla FSD non-disclosure agreements

In September 2021, Motherboard reported that Tesla FSD Beta testers were being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements that specifically prohibited them from speaking to the media or giving test rides to the media. 

A video taken by a FSD Beta tester showing a Tesla swerving to take an unexpected right turn across a crosswalk into the path of several pedestrians had gone viral, prompting Tesla to press Twitter to have it removed.

As noted by The Verge, Tesla was using NDAs to manage public perceptions of its Full Self-Driving software at a time when the company was about to open up access to expand the beta testing to a much wider group of Tesla drivers.

US Department of Justice criminal investigation

In October 2022, Reuters reported that Tesla had been placed under criminal investigation by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) over claims that the company's electric vehicles can drive themselves, with DoJ prosecutors examining whether Tesla misled consumers, investors and regulators by making unsupported claims about its driver assistance technology's capabilities.

SEC misleading marketing claims investigation

In addition to the US DoJ investigation, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had opened a civil investigation into whether Tesla had been misleading investors about the safety of its Autopilot system, according to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). 

Staged demo drive marketing video

In January 2023, a legal deposition made by Tesla director of Autopilot software Ashok Elluswamy that was taken as part of a lawsuit over driver Walter Huang's 2018 death in a Tesla said a demonstration video was staged to show capabilities like stopping at a red light and accelerating at a green light that the system did not have.

The video was released in October 2016 and was promoted on Twitter by Elon Musk as evidence that 'Tesla drives itself.' The video remains archived on Tesla’s website.

Investor class-action US lawsuit

In February 2023, Tesla investors lodged a class-action lawsuit in San Francisco accusing Elon Musk and his company of 'deceptive and misleading marketing of ADAS technology' - specifically Tesla's Autopilot and Full Self-Driving technologies. 

'Although these promises have proven false time and time again, Tesla and Musk have continued making them to generate media attention, to deceive consumers into believing it has unrivaled cutting-edge technology, and to establish itself as a leading player in the fast-growing electric vehicle market,' the suit states.

Whistleblower data leak response

Tesla responded to a data leak to Handelsblatt that showed thousands of customer complaints about self-acceleration issues, braking problems, including 'unintentional emergency braking', and 'phantom stopping', by demanding that 'the data be deleted and spoke of data theft.'

Driving range algorithm rigging

In July 2023, a Reuters investigation revealed Tesla has for years been rigging the dashboard readouts in its electric cars to provide 'rosy' projections of how far owners can drive before needing to recharge. The carmaker went on create a special team in 2022 to cancel owners’ service appointments after a deluge of complaints regarding its driving range capalities and misleading marketing claims.

Operator: Tesla
Developer: Tesla
Country: USA; Germany
Sector: Automotive
Purpose: Automate steering, acceleration, braking
Technology: Driver assistance system
Issue: Governance; Ethics
Transparency: Governance; Black box; Marketing; Legal

Page info
Type: Issue
Published: February 2023
Last updated: June 2023