How The Media Gets Tesla Wrong: the David Pogue Edition

How many facts can a tech critic get wrong in one article? Let us count the ways.

Alex Roy

I recently published my personal 10 Best/Worst of 2018, and soon received dozens of messages asking what I found so offensive about tech critic David Pogue's article, "What it's like to use Tesla's newest self-driving car technology." The answer is simple. Pogue's article is as stupid and irresponsible as its headline. Am I being harsh? What do you think? When people's lives are at stake, language matters. At least one person has died while Autopilot was engaged. Did he think his car was self-driving? We'll never know.

Who is to blame for confusion that kills? Whoever is in a position to tell the truth but, out of ignorance or malice, did not.

From Tesla to Mercedes-Benz, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Motor Trend, The New York Times and the head of the Department of Transportation, there is no shortage of people who could do better. And right there near the top are writers like David Pogue, whose vast audience deserves better than the ignorant swill he's peddling. It's staggering, actually, since he claims to own a Model 3. He sure doesn't write like he does. As a longtime fan of his, boy, am I disappointed.

Let's dive right in, line-by-line:

Alex Roy/Yahoo Finance

"Lots of cars these days can auto-park."

WRONG. It's an option on luxury cars, and notoriously unreliable.

"Lots can self-drive on the highway."

WRONG. There are no self-driving cars on the market today. Not from Tesla. Not from Cadillac. Not from anyone. There are only semi-automated driver assistance systems like Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac SuperCruise. No one—and I mean no one—claims to sell a self-driving car today. The PR and legal departments of every car maker on earth are full of people waiting make this fact clear, if only anyone would call them. Did Pogue call anyone? Apparently not.

"Lots of them have collision avoidance—they’ll slam on the brakes if you don’t."

WRONG. If by "collision avoidance," Pogue means Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), then he's conflating concepts, to his reader's peril. "Avoidance" suggests steering, which no car will do without human input. AEB might prevent a collision, but since no manufacturer can guarantee it, in practice it's really just damage mitigation technology. In no universe will any car maker claim that AEB will slam on the brakes if the driver doesn't. At best, at current levels of technology, AEB might.

"A few cars can change lanes automatically when you put your turn signal on."

WRONG, UNLESS YOU WANT TO DIE. Yes, there are cars that can change lanes automatically, but I'm not aware of a single car on the market that can do so safely, as in 100% safely, without a human in the loop. Why? Because none of them are equipped with rear-facing radar and/or Lidar that might guarantee you won't be killed by a faster vehicle in an adjacent lane.

"Tesla’s Autopilot feature does all of that, of course."

WRONG. Teslas are not self-driving. In fact, Tesla just pulled the "Full Self-Driving" option from their car configurator last week. Why? Confusion, according to Elon Musk. Confusion with Autopilot, which is also not self-driving. As for collision avoidance, Tesla AEB is superior to many on the market, but it is not foolproof. It might brake in time to prevent a collision. Maybe. Lane changes? Tesla relies on short-range ultrasonic sensors for side and rear detection. There is no evidence at this time that the side and rear cameras are active and reliable enough for safe automatic lane changes. If you want to live, you have to look over your shoulder or use the mirror. This is the definition of an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS).

"(I’m a Model 3 owner, and a big Autopilot fan.)"

MAYBE. If Pogue actually owns a Tesla Model 3, he shows a very poor understanding of what his car does, how it does it, and the language necessary to explain it. Did he speak to Tesla before or after publishing this nonsense? If so, he must not like them very much, or respect them at all. They can't have been happy about this highly inaccurate piece.

"But with a free software update this week, Autopilot picks up new skills not found on any other car on the market."

TRUE. A very lonely truth in Pogue's article.

"A Tesla can now pass a slow car ahead of you; change lanes so that it’s in the correct one for your exit; and take highway On and Off ramps—all by itself."

WRONG. A Tesla can "pass" in the sense that the driver can engage the lane change functionality using the turn signal stalk, but the driver still has to engage it again to return to the original lane. As for doing anything "by itself", Autopilot still requires a human to be ready to take over anytime. This is hardly the definition of "by itself," let alone self-driving.

"I took a Model 3 for a spin to try the new features; details below. Meanwhile, this small upgrade, called Navigate with Autopilot, has two big implications:

  • Tesla’s cars are arguably now the self-drivingest cars on the market."

WRONG. What does "self-drivingest" mean? Nothing. It's not on the SAE level chart. To anyone who works on them, self-driving starts at SAE Level 4. Cars are capable of L4 self-driving, or they aren't. Self-driving is binary. If a human is in the loop, it is not self-driving.

"Of course, no car on the road yet responds to Stop signs and traffic lights, and no car can drive you around without you paying attention. But with this week’s Tesla update, no car comes closer."

RIGHT. So...NOT self-driving. Not. Nope.

"It’s becoming clear how Tesla, and presumably its rivals, intend to reach that fully autonomous state. There won’t be one new car model that suddenly does it all. Instead, the car companies intend to automate one driving situation at a time. First it was cruise control. Then it was adaptive cruise control (the car slows automatically when the car ahead does). Then parking. Then lane changes. Now, Tesla has added taking interchanges and off ramps..."

WRONG. It is not clear how Tesla intends to reach "that fully autonomous state." The overwhelming majority of people in the sector don't think one can get to full autonomy ground up, piece-by-piece, using what's called a subsumption approach. Can Tesla? Ask all the people who have left Tesla's Autopilot team whether they think that approach can work. Many of them have gone on to found companies such as Aurora, and are attacking the problem top-down, trying to make self-driving work in one place, then expand the fences. Either way, no Tesla is self-driving today, as Pogue suggests.

"Every Tesla with Enhanced Autopilot (a $5,000 option), already has these self-driving talents:

  • Self-driving (highway). Autopilot includes the above-mentioned adaptive cruise control. A trackball on the steering wheel lets you adjust your maximum speed (roll it vertically) and distance behind the next car (horizontally)."

WRONG. Again, no Tesla is self-driving. 

"Autosteer keeps you in the lane automatically by detecting the painted lane lines, cars and other objects around you."

WRONG. With painted lane lines or cars to follow, Autosteer may keep you in the lane. No guarantees. No painted lane lines or other objects? No Autosteer, therefore not self-driving. 

"Auto-Lane Change. On the highway, if you put on your turn signal, the car checks your blind spot, and, if all is clear, smoothly changes lanes and then turns off the blinker."

WRONG. See above.

"Self-driving (side roads.) The Tesla can self-drive off the highway, too, with limitations. It’s fantastic in stop-and-go traffic. But the Tesla refuses to go more than 5 mph over the posted speed limit. Yes, yes, that’s the careful, legal way to do it—but it drives people behind you crazy. You also have to be going over 18 mph to turn Autosteer on—unless there’s a car ahead of you."

WRONG. Again, no Tesla is self-driving.

"Summon (a button you press in the phone app) makes the Tesla slowly, silently roll out of its parking place, either in forward or in reverse. It’s great for situations when someone has parked too close for you to open the door. (It also opens your garage door, if you’ve set it up that way.)"

WRONG. Not a self-driving feature, but a remote control feature.

"Auto-Park. The Tesla can also park itself, either parallel or perpendicularly, as long as there are other cars on either side of the space. Unlike some cars, which prompt you to operate the shift gears (forward, reverse), the Tesla does everything for you—turning the wheel, shifting, braking."

WRONG. Replace "can" with "may" and you get the picture.

"Some of these features are marked “beta.” All of them are intended to assist you, not replace you, as the driver. (For example, if it’s been more than a couple of minutes since the car felt your hands on the wheel, the screen in front of you flashes; then a chime sounds; if you still don’t respond, Autopilot turns off. If there’s still no response from you, the car figures that maybe you’ve passed out. It slows to a stop and turns on its hazard lights.)"

WRONG. This paragraph invalidates everything prior suggesting Teslas are self-driving.

"The new features are intended for highway use. They also work only on Autopilot—when the car is accelerating, braking, and steering itself."

When you enter a GPS destination, a new “Navigate on Autopilot” button appears beneath the turn-by-turn instructions. If you tap to turn it on, and then turn on Autopilot (two presses of the steering-wheel stalk), the fun begins: automated driving, from on-ramp to off-ramp.

THE FUN BEGINS. Is it self-driving? Now it's "automated." What's the difference. Pogue doesn't say.

Autopass. If the person in front of you is driving too slowly—45 in a 55 mph zone, for example—what would you do? Why, you’d pass them.

Now, the Tesla can do that, too. If it notices that you’re being blocked, and that there’s room in the next lane, a notification appears on your screen. It informs you that if you put on your turn signal, Autopilot will take it from there. It does the passing maneuver smoothly and gracefully. (It doesn’t actually return to your original lane, however—just changes into a faster lane, passing the slowpoke, and stays there.)"

NOPE. That doesn't sound like an automatic pass to me. That sounds like a semi-automated lane change requiring human input. So...not self-driving.

"How aggressive is it? That’s up to you. In the onscreen settings, you can adjust how impatient your car is. The options are Disabled (off), Mild, Average, and Mad Max. In Mad Max mode, the Tesla will suggest passing if the guy in front of you is going even a couple of mph below the speed limit."

NOPE. It isn't aggressive at all, because a human still has to make all the critical decisions. So...not self-driving.

Entrance ramps. This is the big one. The Tesla is now the first commercial car that can actually make turns for you.

WRONG. The Tesla can only "make turns" if your definition of turning is gentle banking limited to on and off ramps. Watch out for those merges, because if there are cars closing faster than your rear-facing ultrasonics can detect them and cancel your "automatic" merge, you're going to get hit. Maybe you can send the bill to Pogue.

"Automatic lane selection. Now the car now keeps an eye on upcoming interchanges and exit ramps, and steers itself into the correct lane, so that you never miss an exit..."

WRONG. Tesla does not guarantee you will never miss an exit. Therefore...not self-driving.

"(Sometimes—when you’re moving from one full-size lane to another—you have to approve the proposed move by tapping your turn-signal stalk or gear stalk...)"

So...not self-driving.

"You may say, “Good heavens! How lazy do you have to be?”—but there’s more to it than that. In my drive through New Jersey’s complex highway cloverleafs, there were several occasions when the highway split into three lanes—the main road plus two forking exits. Those could be panicky moments if you’re unfamiliar with the area. It was amazing to watch the car pick the correct lane automatically.

Exit ramps. If your destination requires you to turn from one highway to another, there’s nothing to it. The car takes the exit ramp, slowing if necessary, and then continues merrily on the new highway."

Sounds like self-driving. Except that none of this is guaranteed. Which makes it not self-driving.

"If you’re turning from a highway onto a residential road, though, the car slows down, and then a distance countdown appears on your screen, letting you know how many more feet are left to go before Navigate on Autopilot turns off. A new, three-note chime plays at that moment. Now you’re in traditional Autopilot: the car drives and steers itself on your new road, but no longer attempts to make turns or take ramps."

WRONG. This suggests that Navigate on Autopilot is self-driving, which it isn't, and that when it kicks you down to Autopilot that that is a different level of self-driving, which it isn't. Again, if "self-driving" requires ANY human input, it isn't self-driving.

"As with other aspects of Autopilot, the new features aren’t flawless. In general, the car is (wisely) conservative: It doesn’t attempt to change lanes or take an exit unless it deems the maneuver safe. Trouble is, you don’t always know what it’s thinking. Sometimes, it won’t change lanes to pass a slow truck, for example, even though the next lane looks perfectly empty to you. And if the exit lane is crowded with cars, you need to grab the wheel and nose into the line yourself."

WTF? Here Pogue's word soup descends into utter meaninglessness. What will these systems do? For sure? Maybe? Who knows? I have a guess, and that guess includes me paying attention every damn second, because I want to live. And that's coming from someone who likes Tesla Autopilot.

"People are becoming more comfortable as automatic autos become more commonplace."

WHAT? What is an "automatic auto"? Is it the transmission? Is it semi-automation? Does Pogue have any respect for language, or his audience? What brands other than Tesla might he be referring to? What does any of this mean?

"Even so, you’ll be under no obligation to use self-driving features; no car company yet intends to take away the steering wheel."

And yet many people talking about how we won't need to own cars in the future, and that we shouldn't own cars at all. I suggest Pogue read the Human Driving Manifesto and educate himself.

Dear Mr. Pogue: Stick to portables and desktops. Someone might get killed otherwise.

Tesla is profitable.. OR ARE THEY?
The Drive

[UPDATED: to reflect Josh Brown family statement on the 2016 crash that took his life.]

The Drive's Editor-at-Large Alex Roy is founder of Geotegic Consulting and the Human Driving Association, and the host of The Autonocast. He is also the author of The Driver, and has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.