Why the Tesla Model S 'Autopilot' name needs to change...right now

Consumer Reports has denounced the automaker for the self-driving name. I happen to agree. Change it now.

Self-driving car Tesla

This driver posted a video on Youtube showing his use of Autopilot in rural areas without his hands on the steering wheel.

Credit: Youtube

There's nothing like a name that can lead to rampant confusion.

Although they insist it works like the pilot-assisted feature in planes (which requires that the pilot pays attention), Tesla needs to realize that the term "autopilot" has many connotations for drivers. The news about a recent fatality when a truck pulled in front of a driver has spurred a new discussion. Now, it is all about the name.

Consumer Reports wants Tesla to change the name and disable the feature. They'd like to have better warnings and requirements that drivers keep their hands on the wheel for now until the industry and other automakers figure out what to do.

It's becoming a setback for an industry that has never really made cars fully autonomous yet, and it's not that surprising that Tesla is in the middle of the fight.

Here's the problem. Customers are confused. When you say "autopilot" to someone, it implies hands-free. It implies you can read the paper. It implies the car is going to do all of the work and you are going to do none of it.

Since I've driven most of the makes and models that support automated driving, I know the major car companies don't want to mislead anyone. In an Acura, you'll see constant warnings about keeping your hands on the wheel. In a Mercedes or Audi sedan, the system won't even work if you go hands-free for too long.

However, I don't agree with Consumer Reports that the feature should be disabled. The driver can make up their mind about that, and the tech has shown it can use sensors to spot dangers in the road that can help drivers in many situations.

What needs to change is the terminology. It is not autonomous. It should be viewed as an aid for driving, not as a way to get some sleep. The problem has not been the technology so far it is driver understanding of what is happening.

When can Tesla call it Autopilot? When other cars use the tech, when the roads are equipped with sensors as well, when there are roads designed for automatic driving, when Google has their tech ready, and when public perception about the tech reaches the point where we understand what it does and why.

Let me describe the urgency here. What's in a name, anyway? You'd be surprised. If Tesla used a name like Steering and Acceleration Assist people would understand better that the tech is not designed for long periods of not paying attention. You are being assisted, which means you need to focus on the road.

In the future, when the road would know you are in that mode, it would make sense because other cars would get an alert or even the car equivalent of an air traffic control center would see you are in Autopilot mode. Planes do that now.

There has to be a name change at least. Stop using Autopilot. It can save lives. 

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