Consumer groups to feds: Pull Mercedes Drive Pilot ads

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington – Consumer groups are calling for federal regulators to force Mercedes-Benz USA to pull advertisements that describe its 2017 E-Class vehicles as nearly self-driving cars.

Consumer Reports’ Consumers Union said in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission that Mercedes has depicted the 2017 E-Class as “a futuristic, highly autonomous concept car, with the occupants facing each other and interacting while the car drives itself” in television and print ads.

The Consumers Union said the ads are “likely to mislead a reasonable consumer by representing the E-Class as self-driving when it is not.”

“The Federal Trade Commission should take enforcement action against companies that falsely, misleadingly or unfairly claim that their cars drive autonomously when they actually require the steady control of a human driver,” the group wrote to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.

The letter was signed by Consumer Reports, the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Auto Safety and a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator.

Mercedes-Benz describes the 2017 E-Class as a “masterpiece of intelligence” on its website. The company’s web page touts the E-Class’s Drive Pilot driver-assistance feature as a system that “takes intelligent cruise control in a new direction: sideways. It can stop and go with the flow, and help you stay between the lines, even in curves.”

“This isn’t just the most advanced E-Class yet,” Mercedes-Benz says on its website. “With technologies no car has ever offered, the 2017 E-Class writes a new chapter in the story of driving: Where cars can talk to each other, and look out for you, like no other car on the road.”

Mercedes-Benz USA describes the E-Class cars that have the Drive Pilot feature as a “semi-autonomous” vehicle “that can help do the stress work for you” in a commercial posted to its YouTube page.

The commercial contains a disclaimer that says “vehicle cannot drive itself, but has automated driving features. System will remind the driver frequently to keep hands on the steering wheel. Always observe safe driving practices and obey all state and federal laws.”

Mercedes-Benz USA said in a statement provided to The Detroit News “it was certainly not our intent to cause any confusion between driver-assistance systems and the promise of an autonomous future, one leads to the other but they are not the same.

“The systems used in the new E-Class are clearly identified as ‘driver-assistance systems’ which we have spent the better part of two decades developing in pursuit of an accident-free future,” the company said.

“In all of our ads, the driver’s hands are in close proximity to the wheel and there is a statement that (the) ‘Vehicle cannot drive itself, but has semi-automated driving features,’ ” Mercedes continued.

The consumer groups said the Mercedes-Benz 2017 E-Class ads are deceptive because the vehicle does not meet federal standards that have been established for the definition of a self-driving auto.

“According to NHTSA, ‘(s)elf-driving vehicles are those in which operation of the vehicle occurs without direct driver input to control the steering, acceleration and braking and are designed so that the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway while operating in self-driving mode,” the groups said.

The consumer groups added the commercials that have been run by Mercedes-Benz for the 2017 E-Class “could give consumers a false sense of security in the ability of the car to operate autonomously,” despite the disclaimers that are included in the ads.

“The E-Class does not meet the definition of either a fully or partially self-driving car, yet it is marketed in a way that a reasonable consumer would believe it does,” they wrote in the letter to the FTC.

“The fine print does not let Mercedes-Benz off the hook,” the consumer groups continued. “Consumers deserve to be able to shop for a car without facing misleading marketing claims — particularly if those claims pertain to safety-critical driving functions. The FTC should defend its standard for clear and conspicuous marketing disclosures and take action against Mercedes-Benz for its potentially deceptive advertising.”