Electric automaker Tesla is—once again—under fire over the use of the name "Autopilot" as the name chosen to market its Advanced Driver Assistance System. This time, it's U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, who is indirectly wagging his finger toward the Texas-based carmaker.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Buttigieg specifically slammed the use of the name "Autopilot" to describe any system that requires a driver actually pay attention to the road. He avoided calling Tesla out by name.
“I don’t think that something should be called, for example, an Autopilot, when the fine print says you need to have your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times,” said Buttigieg during an interview with AP.
Tesla has been repeatedly slammed for the use of both the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving branding. Not only has Tesla been repeatedly investigated by various three-letter agencies over Autopilot-related crashes, but it also faces the potential of a recall should the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determine that the software is a safety concern.
Watchdog groups have also called for an FTC investigation into Tesla misleading the public with its naming. Head of the National Traffic Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, called the use of the Full Self-Driving branding "misleading and irresponsible," while CEO Elon Musk and brand fans lobbed attacks against one of the firm's senior advisors (and outspoken Autopilot critic), Missy Cummings.
Earlier this year, Tesla admitted that the Justice Department is investigating the two branches of its ADAS software. The automaker warned in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that potential "enforcement action" that pertained to ongoing investigations had the potential to negatively affect the automaker's business.
Buttigieg did not comment on any ongoing investigations during the interview, but he did flex the U.S. Department of Transportation's muscles should the need for enforcement arise.
“We call balls and strikes,” said Buttigieg. “I view it as something where it’s very important to be very objective. But anytime a company does something wrong or a vehicle needs to be recalled or a design isn’t safe, we’re going to be there.”
Whether or not the DOT, DOJ, NHTSA, or any other body will force Tesla's hand into recalling or rebranding its software is unknown. What is clear is that each agency is keeping a very watchful eye on the space, regardless of the automaker. Tesla's naming might be in the crosshairs today, but Volvo's Ride Pilot, Mercedes-Benz's Drive Pilot, or Nissan's ProPilot could be the next to be targeted.
Buttigieg issued a strong warning for any automaker who intends to mislead the public with marketing:
“Both outside bodies, states, and other regulatory entities on the marketing side, and us from a vehicle safety perspective, are always paying attention.”
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