Consumer Reports Calls on FTC to Investigate Mercedes-Benz For ‘Misleading’ Self-Driving Car Ads

Let's dissect the ads in question, and where Merc went wrong.

FTC Mercedes Investigation

The 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-class may be amazing, but it is not a self-driving car. Not even close. But their early ads say it is, in exactly that language. This is how people get killed, and now Consumer Reports is rightfully calling on the FTC to investigate what they call a “misleading” campaign.

Consumer Reports specifically called out a Mercedes TV ad called “The Future,” in which a narrator’s voice-over says, “Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself? An autonomous-thinking automobile that protects those inside and outside. Ready or not, the future is here.”

Stuttgart, we have problem.

How could this happen? The company that claims "The Best or Nothing" must have some wires crossed between Legal and Advertising. It was only two weeks ago that Consumer Reports called on Tesla to stop marketing their semi-Autonomous Driving (AD) technology under the brand name "Autopilot," suggesting consumers would assume it has self-driving capabilities.

And then you have . . . this TV commercial:

What’s the problem? The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) has defined 4 levels of AD. Level 1 is almost everything on the road. Tesla’s Autopilot is a very good Level 2; in other words, it can safely drive itself for several minutes as long as the user pays attention. Level 3 reduces driver involvement, but real autonomy doesn’t happen until Level 4.

What’s a 2017 E-class? Not quite Level 2.

Anyone getting into an E-Class thinking otherwise is going to have an accident. Based on the popularity of E-classes, the pool of potential accidents is far larger than Tesla’s 90,000, which has already yielded three crashes blamed on (but not yet attributed to) the Autopilot system, which is vastly superior to Mercedes-Benz’s.

What AD technology is actually in the E-class? Here’s how Mercedes describes Drive Pilot—their latest suite—on their website:

There can be no misunderstanding about Drive Pilot. It’s an invented term whose only meaning can be derived from what Mercedes-Benz tells us. Search “Mercedes Drive Pilot” and you get a page about “Intelligent Drive,” which is confusing. I know the difference, but the average person won’t. Drive Pilot is supposed to represent their state-of-the-art AD, and yet the purveyors of "The Best or Nothing" are very shy about it.

Let’s take a closer look:

DRIVE PILOT takes intelligent cruise control in a new direction: sideways. It can stop and go with the flow, and help you stay between the lines, even in curves. And now you can change lanes with just a touch of the turn-signal lever.”

You know what else Mercedes-Benz takes sideways? Clarity. Is Drive Pilot Level 2? Level 4? Who knows? What is the average consumer to assume Drive Pilot can actually do? A top-level site search reveals that Drive Pilot doesn’t even have its own explanatory page.

And then you have this ad, which I’m quite sure Mercedes-Benz will come to regret: 

A self-driving car? Sounds like Level 4 to me. Drive Pilot isn’t even mentioned. “Self-correcting” makes perfect sense in the context of anything Level 2 or above, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else in the context of Drive Pilot, or anywhere else on their site.

The E-class is full of state-of-the-art safety equipment unrelated to Drive Pilot, and deserves to be the heralded for what it is: a platform for what is probably the world’s best ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. But that’s all it has.

Let’s hope the only ones to suffer for this mistake are those who greenlit an ad campaign for a product they didn’t understand, and whomever at Mercedes didn’t bother to check it before it ran.

Here’s a link to the full text of the Consumer Reports letter to the FTC.

Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.