Tesla may already be having problems at home related to its autopilot features, especially after a string of incidents involving mishaps and at least one death, but now it might also be facing troubles abroad simply because of the jargon it uses. In Germany, transport minister Alexander Dobrindt sent the car maker a missive requesting Tesla to stop referring to its driver assistance systems as “Autopilot”. His point: that the word could be misinterpreted, leading drivers to sit back and relax and get into accidents or, worse, legal trouble.
The letter, which the Federal Motor Transport Authority or KBA confirmed, supposedly takes issue with the word “autopilot”. Dobrindt believes that drivers would take it to mean that they can let the car do all the hard work and doesn’t need to pay attention, which is, of course, contrary to all the surrounding materials, training, and advertising about the feature.
This development follows on the heels of another letter sent by the KBA itself, this time to Tesla car owners. The letter warns owners and drivers that, despite the name, they are legally required to still be attentive and completely read to take control of the car, even with the autopilot features engaged.
Of course, Tesla is arguing that the term “autopilot” has been used for decades in the aerospace industry, particularly on airplanes, with no confusion. Putting a plane on autopilot doesn’t mean the pilot can simply just doze off, only that some activities are offloaded to the plane’s computers. It could be argued, however, that driving planes and driving cars are two widely different things and popular fiction might have, in fact, given common people some misconceptions about how autopilot on aircraft works.
It’s not yet certain where this back and forth between Tesla and the German government will lead to. Dobrindt and the KBA are, after all, only requesting that the word “autopilot” not to be used in marketing materials and ads, leaving internal documentation intact. Whether Tesla concedes or face potential formal legal actions still has to be seen.
Update: Tesla has given us the following statement:
“Tesla’s Autopilot operates in conjunction with the human driver to make driving safer and less stressful. This is how the term has been used for decades in aerospace: to denote a support system that operates under the direct supervision of a human pilot.
We have always been clear with our customers that Autopilot is a driver assistance system that requires the driver to pay attention at all times, similar to driver assistance systems from other manufacturers. Just as in an airplane, when used properly, Autopilot reduces driver workload and provides an added layer of safety when compared to purely manual driving.
We have great faith in our German customers and are not aware of any who have misunderstood the meaning, but would be happy to conduct a survey to assess this.”