Senators urge FTC to investigate Tesla's Autopilot and self-driving claims

Sens. Markey and Blumenthal accused the company of 'misleading advertising and marketing.'

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Tesla could face further federal scrutiny over its Autopilot feature. Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal have called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company over "misleading advertising and marketing" of the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving (FSD) systems.

"Tesla and [CEO Elon] Musk’s repeated overstatements of their vehicle’s capabilities — despite clear and frequent warnings — demonstrate a deeply concerning disregard for the safety of those on the road and require real accountability," the senators wrote in their letter to FTC chair Lina Khan. "Their claims put Tesla drivers — and all of the travelling public — at risk of serious injury or death." It's not yet clear whether the FTC will heed the senators' call and investigate the company.

Along with several examples of Tesla and Musk seemingly overselling Autopilot and FSD functions, Markey and Blumenthal cited an investigation that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened this week. The agency is looking into a string of collisions between Tesla vehicles and parked emergency vehicles, one of which resulted in someone's death. The NHTSA said the Tesla vehicles in question all had Autopilot or Traffic Aware Cruise Control switched on when the crashes occurred.

Despite the name, FSD (for which Tesla charges $10,000 when a car is purchased) doesn't yet make vehicles fully autonomous. FSD, which is in beta, is currently an advanced driver assistance feature that handles maneuvers such as automatic parking, lane changing and summoning the vehicle to a nearby location. It's a Level 2 autonomous driving system, whereas full self-driving capability with no human supervision required is Level 5. Tesla notes on its website that "Autopilot does not turn a Tesla into a self-driving car nor does it make a car autonomous."

Musk has made many claims over the years about Tesla being close to offering fully autonomous capabilities. In a January earnings call, Musk said he was "highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year." However, a Tesla engineer later suggested the company was a long way off from rolling out Level 5 functionality.

The National Transportation Safety Board previously accused Tesla of overselling Autopilot's capabilities. In May, reports suggested the California Department of Motor Vehicles was looking into Musk's FSD claims. The names of the Autopilot and FSD features have been criticized for potentially leading drivers to overestimate their capabilities. Markey is among those who called on Tesla to change the name of Autopilot.