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Tesla's Musk says software changes could improve Autopilot

18 July 2016

Consumer Reports notes that, at the same time, Tesla's press release says the driver "is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the auto".

Noting that its Autopilot must be activated by the driver before it can be used, Tesla's website advises that "the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase". The accident reportedly happened on May 7 in Florida, killing the driver Joshua Brown.

Consumer Reports believes Tesla is sending mixed messages - the vehicle can drive itself, but you need to be ready to take over driving at any given moment.

The Palo Alto electric auto maker characterized the death as "the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated", but faced criticism for not disclosing the crash to the SEC, a possible breach of its corporate duty to inform the agency - and thus, its investors - of so-called material events. The system has the ability to take complete control of the vehicle if the driver decides it. Though advanced active safety technology in vehicles could eventually make roads safer, today "we're deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology", said Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for the organization, in a statement.

In a letter to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Senator John Thune, who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has said that he is particularly interested in the company's efforts to ensure that Autopilot technology "was deployed safely in this instance". The crash involved Tesla's luxury Model X SUV which skidded off Pennsylvania Turnpike near the Bedford exit, about 107 miles east of Pittsburgh, after hitting barriers on both sides of the highway.

The request from Thune, signaling increased scrutiny on the Silicon Valley heavyweight, came as Consumer Reports magazine urged Tesla to disable the automatic steering function on its electric vehicles due to the crash, which USA safety regulators are investigating.

Separately, Musk said in a tweet that a recent crash in Pennsylvania, in which the driver said he was in Autopilot mode when he crashed, was not due to the software. Critics have complained that Tesla is using drivers as "guinea pigs" - a sentiment echoed by Consumer Reports. "We will continue to develop, validate, and release those enhancements as the technology grows", the spokeswoman said.

Tesla said Autopilot underwent millions of miles of internal testing and is updated constantly.

All Tesla vehicles with Autopilot hardware transmit data continuously to the manufacturer, whether Autopilot is engaged or not.

Tesla Motors responded to these situations stating that Autopilot was not created to completely replace the human driver of the vehicle but instead, it's a system that aims to simply assist the driving process. The magazine found that users couldn't stop the cars right away if they pressed the wrong button on the key fob.

But Consumer Reports said Tesla responded to its request by saying that "while we appreciate well-meaning advice from any individual or group, we make our decisions on the basis of real-world data, not speculation by the media".