Germany tells Tesla: stop calling it 'Autopilot'

October 17, 2016

Tesla is under fire again for its semi-autonomous Autopilot software, and once again, the critics are German regulators. This go-round, officials want the automaker to stop using the term "Autopilot" because they feel that it can mislead consumers into thinking that Teslas can drive themselves. 

According to newspaper Bild am Sonntag, Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority has formally requested the change in a letter to the start-up automaker. Tesla has confirmed that it received that letter, but it hasn't yet indicated whether it will comply with the agency's request.

A week ago, a draft report from Germany's Federal Highway Research Institute showed that analysts found Autopilot to be "a considerable traffic hazard". The Institute's rationale had to do with Autopilot software and the way it maneuvered Tesla vehicles on the road. 

The Federal Motor Transport Authority's concern is slightly different. It has little to do with software and everything to do with nomenclature.

What's in a name?

For years, autopilot has been a common feature on many new planes, but pilots know it isn't a substitute for human oversight. They understand that they have to remain attentive, even when autopilot is engaged. 

In public usage, however, that meaning has become lost--or at least, significantly altered. When we say that something is "on autopilot", we mean that the thing is working on its own, without human intervention. It implies that whoever might've once been controlling the process in question has, metaphorically, taken her hands off the wheel, and it's now guiding itself.

That linguistic corruption has spelled trouble for Tesla since day one. (As evidence, scan YouTube for proof that humans have profound propensity for stupid acts.) No matter how many times CEO Elon Musk has reminded consumers and the press that Autopilot is not a self-driving system--and no matter how often he's reminded us all that the technology is still in beta--consumers aren't hearing the message. That's in part why Tesla increased safety controls in the most recent Autopilot update

Will Tesla comply with the Federal Motor Transport Authority's request? It seemed as though the company initially did so in China, when similar concerns were raised, though ultimately the company reverted to its old language. We'll keep you posted as the situation in Germany plays out. 

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