Automakers Must Exercise Advertising Caution on the Road Toward Autonomous Vehicles

Tesla’s enthusiastic marketing of its Autopilot feature may be landing the company in legal hot water. Last week, a Florida man sued the car manufacturer after his Model S crashed into a stalled vehicle at high speed. The driver, who allegedly suffered spinal and brain injuries, claims that Tesla’s “purposefully manipulative sales pitch” had duped him and other Tesla owners into the mistaken belief that their vehicles can travel on the highway almost without supervision. The outcome of the case may carry key lessons not only for Tesla, but for all automakers as they develop more autonomous features.

This isn’t the first time Tesla has faced legal challenges related to the Autopilot feature. In May, the company paid $5 million to settle a class action suit claiming its Autopilot 2.0 upgrade was unusable and dangerous. This case, while currently only involving one plaintiff, could have even broader ramifications. The plaintiff’s products liability suit claims that the company has systematically duped consumers through a “pervasive national marketing campaign.” If successful, this suit could open the door to recovery for others who crash while using Autopilot.

While Tesla has typically been more grandiose in their advertising techniques than more traditional automakers, their legal challenges do serve to highlight the struggles that auto manufacturers will face in the coming years. This year alone, Ford has packaged its driver assist features into a system called Co-Pilot 360 and GM has called its Super Cruise system “the world’s first true hands-free driver assistance feature for the freeway.” In the near future, other car manufacturers are expected to join these companies in developing ever more autonomous features.

As the auto industry collectively drives toward the creation of truly autonomous vehicles, there will be an understandable temptation to hype up every new technological feature. Arguably, many of these features will increase auto safety when used properly. Certainly, road testing such features is a key step on the path towards fully driverless cars. The challenges facing Tesla should serve as a warning though. Companies need to be cautious in describing their driver-assist technologies, and ensuring that customers understand the limits of such new features. Doing so will have the dual benefit of reminding drivers that they should still be in control of the vehicle, and shielding themselves from the type of liability Tesla faces today.