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Is Tesla in trouble? Autopilot's fake marketing under investigation | Silicon Valley Watch
If you are an ordinary consumer who is not very familiar with the latest technology, when you see Autopilot or Full Self-Driving, what function do you think it is? Literally autonomous driving, but is it really autonomous driving?
Takeover Twitter backyard fire
Last Thursday, Musk, the world’s richest man, successfully completed the acquisition of Twitter. After six months of forced acquisitions, public remorse, and disputes and lawsuits, Musk finally bought the Twitter account at the original price of $44 billion. The world's most influential social media platform in its own pocket.
Just after completing the acquisition, Musk couldn’t wait to clean up Twitter. He disbanded Twitter's board of directors at the first time, fired his unpleasant Indian CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO and chief legal counsel and many other executives, and planned to lay off more than 7,000 Twitter employees Halfway through, I'm ready to go ahead with my own Twitter revamp.
In order to implement his plan more efficiently, Musk decided to personally serve as the interim CEO of Twitter, and invited many of his friends in the venture capital circle to serve as renovation consultants. Companies such as the science firm Neuralink have brought in their technical backbones to Twitter to review the social media’s code. Among them are more than 50 software engineers responsible for Autopilot.
But just as Musk turned his attention to Twitter, Tesla's core product feature, Autopilot, was in the news last week. This time, Autopilot's news was not because of product upgrades, nor was it related to another accident and car accident, but became the subject of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating more than 10 crashes involving Tesla since last year. The Tesla Autopilot system was active at the time of these accidents. The U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal investigation targets Autopilot’s naming and marketing methods.
Specifically, the federal Justice Department's Washington, D.C. and San Francisco divisions will jointly investigate whether Tesla misrepresented its assisted driving technology features. There is conduct that misleads consumers, investors and regulators.
A criminal investigation is different from a civil investigation, which means that the U.S. Department of Justice's investigation and evidence collection process and standards will be very careful and strict. The Justice Department may have access to Tesla's internal email and text message records to find out whether Musk and other Tesla executives were deliberately exaggerating the Autopilot feature for Tesla sales. Such evidence will be key to the Justice Department's future decisions on whether to prosecute.
If the Justice Department finds concrete evidence, Tesla and its executives could be held criminally liable, and criminal proceedings are more serious than civil lawsuits. Of course, the investigation may also be fruitless, and Tesla will retreat. As the investigation is still in progress, the U.S. Department of Justice has refused to disclose the specific progress.
Assisted driving named automatic
What exactly is wrong with the Autopilot system? Since its release in 2014, the feature has sparked numerous controversies. Because Autopilot is not a literal automatic driving system, it is actually a set of advanced assisted driving systems (ADAS) including automatic lane keeping, automatic lane change, automatic parking, automatic cruise and many other functions.
However, Tesla named this assisted driving system "Autopilot" and repeatedly implied and stated that the vehicle could drive automatically during the marketing process. A 2018 survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that 40% of car owners believed that Autopilot on their car could drive itself.
In contrast, Tesla China's translation of Autopilot as "automatic assisted driving system" is more accurate and realistic. However, this Chinese translation of Tesla China was also changed after being sued after the fatal accident of Tesla Autopilot in China in 2016. The previous Chinese name was also "autopilot".
Undoubtedly, Autopilot is the core feature and main selling point of Tesla's electric cars. When Tesla and Musk market their trolley products, they will also specifically highlight the convenience brought by the Autopilot function. In a 2016 conference call, Musk said the Autopilot system "may be better than a human driver."
Tesla's Full Self-Driving system, released in 2020, has once again sparked a naming and marketing controversy. Although it has the signboard of "full self-driving", Tesla's system is still L2+ level ADAS, rather than literal full self-driving (equivalent to L4 level).
Whether it's Autopilot or FSD, the driver needs to be focused and ready to take over. According to the SAE automatic driving classification standard adopted by the US Department of Transportation, even if the vehicle can drive automatically under certain conditions, as long as the driver needs to continuously monitor the driving situation and take over the vehicle at any time, such a driving system belongs to the L2 level.
However, when Musk and Tesla marketed the FSD system, they also kept hinting at the fully automatic driving function of the assisted driving system. In Musk's own words last week, the upgraded FSD would allow Tesla's trams to "go to work, to friends' houses, to the grocery store, and the owner doesn't even need to touch the steering wheel." A video about the FSD on Tesla's website describes it this way, "The man is in the driver's seat, only for legal reasons. He doesn't do anything, the vehicle drives itself."
Of course, Tesla will also explicitly warn owners that they must keep their hands on the steering wheel and maintain control of the vehicle when using the Autopilot function. Tesla’s website clearly states that Autopilot technology only assists in steering, braking, speed, and lane changes, and this feature does not allow the vehicle to drive automatically. And, before activating the Autopilot feature, drivers must agree to "keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times and maintain control of the vehicle at all times."
Even after Musk announced that FSD is omnipotent last week, he would emphasize, "The driver's seat still needs someone to sit, and we won't say that now the car can do it without a person sitting behind the steering wheel."
The world's richest man is deeply involved in politics
The unruly and self-sufficient Musk is no stranger to investigations by federal regulators, and he and Tesla have been investigated and prosecuted by regulators over the past few years.
In 2018, he was investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for falsely announcing plans to take Tesla private on Twitter. With almost certain prosecution, Musk was forced to settle with the SEC, pay $20 million in fines each with Tesla, resign as Tesla chairman, and agree to future remarks involving Tesla. Submit to a lawyer for review. Earlier this year, Musk's lawsuit to dismiss the pretrial for tweets was also dismissed by a federal judge. In the process of acquiring Twitter, Musk is currently under investigation by the SEC for failing to disclose his Twitter holdings in a timely manner as required.
Since last year, Tesla has become the focus of investigation by federal and California legislative and regulatory agencies, and the Autopilot function has become the focus of the investigation, and the scope and level of the investigation are constantly expanding and escalating. The Justice Department's criminal investigation is also the result of an escalation after a number of regulatory investigations.
Two Democratic senators, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, have been vocal critics of Tesla's Autopilot feature. They publicly asked federal regulators to investigate Tesla's Autopilot feature in February, arguing that Tesla released software without adequate consideration of its risks and consequences, putting everyone on the road at risk.
Two Democratic senators publicly applauded the news of the Justice Department's criminal investigation into Tesla's Autopilot. The pair issued a public statement saying they had been sounding the alarm about Tesla's misleading marketing practices that exaggerated the vehicle's actual handling capabilities and posed serious dangers to drivers and the public.
The background that needs to be pointed out is that Musk’s relationship with the current ruling Democratic Party in the United States is deteriorating. After the outbreak of the epidemic in 2020, Musk conflicted with the California government because of the epidemic prevention policy, instructing the Tesla factory to forcibly resume production without the approval of the local government, and threatened to leave California with Tesla.
In order to save billions in taxes (Texas have no state income tax and capital gains tax), Musk not only sold all California properties and moved to Texas, but also signed Tesla headquarters from California to Austin, Texas. After moving to Texas, Musk has continued to openly antagonize progressive leftists such as Warren and Sanders because of issues such as tax hikes for the wealthy, labor unions, and trolley subsidies, and has repeatedly mocked the Biden administration’s economic policies.
The acquisition of Twitter has made Musk more deeply involved in the political struggle in the United States. Musk has publicly advocated the restoration of former President Trump’s Twitter account, accused Twitter of unfairly blocking the conservative right’s speech, and stood in line that he would vote for the Republican Party. Republicans and conservatives see Musk's acquisition of Twitter as a major victory for them to regain public opinion. Democrats are worried that after Musk takes office, Twitter will again be flooded with conspiracy theories and ultra-conservative rhetoric.
The mortal enemy is in charge of the supervision department
After Tesla launched the Autopilot function, the National Highway Safety Administration (hereinafter referred to as NHTSA) first investigated the safety of this assisted driving system in 2017, but the final investigation found that no safety problems were found.
However, in the past few years, the number of fatal accidents involving Tesla Autopilot has been increasing, especially several tragic accidents in which Autopilot led Tesla to directly hit the road isolation belt or a large truck, causing the car to crash and burst into flames. attracted the attention of the media and regulators. NHTSA's 2017 findings have also been met with many questions, with critics arguing that NHTSA did not conduct an in-depth analysis of Autopilot's reliability at the time, nor did it disclose detailed data.
"We're still in the Wild West," Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said of Autopilot in 2020, arguing that false marketing and mass deployment of assisted driving are premature. Driving technology, "like waiting for disaster to come".
Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said in early 2020 that many car accidents prove that Tesla's Autopilot technology is not mature enough, and the cameras and radar sensors are not accurate enough. If the regulatory authorities do not take timely measures to intervene, there will be more. Many tragedies happened.
Musk doesn't think so. He believes that Autopilot has effectively reduced the occurrence of car accidents, which are caused by car owners not maintaining the continuous focus as required. In 2020, Musk released an upgraded version of Tesla's advanced driver assistance technology, FSD.
What Musk may not have anticipated, though, is that the U.S. regulatory environment for assisted driving technology is shifting significantly. Last October, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) appointed Duke University professor Mary Cummings as a senior advisor on safety technology. The appointment is widely regarded as a clear signal of the change in NHTSA's regulatory direction, which means that the US autonomous driving regulatory stance has shifted from dovish to hawkish, and from "encouraging new technologies to be tested on the road" to "safety is a top priority."
Kunmings, 56, is a professor of computer science and electrical engineering and director of the Human and Automation Laboratory at Duke University. She was the first female fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy. After retiring, she entered academia. She held faculty positions at Virginia Tech, MIT, and Duke University, and became an academician of the American Academy of Aeronautics and Astronautics. To avoid a conflict of interest, Kunmings resigned from the board of Veoneer, the global auto parts supplier giant, and sold all of his holdings before joining NHTSA.
Over the past few years, Kunmings' research interests have shifted significantly to artificial intelligence and automation, with particular focus on the safety and socio-ethical implications of autonomous driving technology. For the past few years, Kunmings has been an outspoken critic of Tesla's AutoPilot, arguing that the technology's reliability and marketing are flawed by ignoring safety and misleading users.
Kunmings became the technical helm of the U.S. autonomous driving regulatory direction, an appointment that sparked strong dissatisfaction from Musk. Musk used his Twitter influence to publicly criticize Kunmings for his serious prejudice against Tesla, believing that the appointment by the U.S. regulator was deliberately targeting Tesla, and even launched a petition signed by nearly 20,000 Tesla employees Boycott this appointment by NHTSA. However, his boycott did not affect Kunmings' inauguration. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and NHTSA have publicly supported Kunmings. NHTSA stressed that Kunmings was appointed in anticipation of her expertise and leadership in safety and automation technology.
Regulatory attitudes are getting tougher
2021 is the year that U.S. regulators’ attitudes toward assisted driving technology are turning. Regulators from the federal government to California have significantly tightened their oversight of driver-assist systems, and have pressed Tesla and Autopilot with a series of regulatory investigations and inquiries.
In June of last year, NHTSA required automakers to submit reports about crashes in driver-assist mode. In August last year, NHTSA opened an investigation into a series of Tesla crashes. One of the key cases is that the car owner drove the Autopilot function directly into the emergency vehicle that was parked on the side of the road, causing the car to crash and kill.
In February, NHTSA announced an investigation into 416,000 Tesla cars equipped with Autopilot, after the agency received more than 350 complaints from owners whose Tesla Autopilot suddenly slowed and braked without warning. At the same time, NHTSA has continued to pressure Tesla's security software upgrade operations. Under direct pressure from NHTSA, Tesla recalled the FSD system twice in November last year and in February this year.
In June of this year, NHTSA announced that during the 10 months of the agency's investigation, 392 crashes involving advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) occurred in the United States, resulting in 6 deaths and 5 serious injuries. Of those crashes, 273 involved Tesla's Autopilot, FSD, and related features, five of which resulted in fatalities. Therefore, NHTSA decided to expand the scope of the investigation to 830,000 Tesla electric cars equipped with Autopilot, requiring Tesla to submit specific operating data.
California regulators are also eyeing Tesla's Autopilot marketing. In July, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) formally filed a lawsuit after a year-long investigation, accusing Tesla of false marketing and misleading marketing practices for its Autopilot system. This is the first time the California DMV has taken action against the naming and marketing of Tesla's Autopilot, which has been criticized for being too lax on Tesla.
Tesla has filed a complaint against the lawsuit, asking for a hearing to defend itself. The lawsuit could affect not only the naming of Tesla's Autopilot, but also other automakers selling cars with assisted driving systems in California. If the DMV wins, Tesla will be forced to change the naming and marketing of Autopilot and FSD.
Supervision means one after another. At the beginning of September this year, the California Congress passed a bill requiring more regulation on the way car companies market their assisted driving features. Although the bill does not directly name Tesla and applies to all car companies that sell assisted driving, given the many California DMV survey data cited by lawmakers, it is clear that Tesla's Autopilot feature has prompted California lawmakers to pay attention to this issue. . The bill also has general support from California Democrats.
"Automakers and dealers may not sell any new passenger vehicle equipped with partial self-driving features, or provide any software updates or vehicle upgrades that add partial self-driving features, unless, at the time of delivery and update of the vehicle, the The owner or the owner of the vehicle clearly informs the naming of the relevant functions and clearly describes the functions and limitations of the relevant functions.”
California Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat, said bluntly, "California consumers think FSD is a fully autonomous system, but this is not the case. Although General Motors, Ford Motors, BMW Mercedes-Benz, etc. Other car companies have assisted driving, but they don’t market it to imply that the car will drive itself. They clearly state the limits of the automation technology, and that’s the right [marketing action].”
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