A poorly named auto safety feature may create more danger

Many product liability lawsuits related to automobiles center around design or manufacturing defects that make a car dangerous to operate or unreliable in a crash. A good example is the Takata air bag recall that impacted millions of vehicles made by dozens of auto manufacturers. The air bags could inflate with too much force, causing an explosion that could send shrapnel into the cab of a vehicle.

Much rarer are cases involving products that are dangerous simply because their names are misleading. But that seems to be the case with a feature offered on vehicles from Tesla, one of the nation’s premier luxury automakers. In recent years, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Consumer Reports have each called upon Tesla to change the name of its “Autopilot” feature, claiming that it dangerously misleads drivers into thinking that they do not need to stay engaged in their steering duties.

Since 2016, there have been several fatal crashes involving Tesla vehicles in which drivers had their hands off the steering wheel for a dangerous period of time prior to impact. Although the owner’s manual indicates that Autopilot is not a hands-free experience, the name Autopilot suggests otherwise.

In a survey of 2,000 drivers conducted by the IIHS, nearly half said they thought it would be safe to go-hands free if they were using a system called Autopilot. If these had all been Tesla owners, it stands to reason that some of them would fail to read the owner’s manual before trying out the Autopilot system.

Most other automakers with similar features have named their systems to better indicate that drivers still need to remain in at least partial control of the vehicle. Many feature the word “assist” or “assistant,” suggesting that the vehicle cannot completely replace the driver.

The good news with a problem like this is that it is easily fixable at almost no cost. Tesla only needs to change the name of the Autopilot feature and more prominently feature warnings about what it can and cannot do. But the fact that Tesla has failed to address the issue despite warnings from respected consumer advocacy groups may indicate additional safety problems for drivers and future legal problems for the automaker.