Consumer Reports Calls Tesla Smart Summon “A Science Experiment”

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It is fair to say the rollout of Tesla’s Smart Summon feature has not been an unqualified success. Reports have filtered in over the days since the feature was installed via an over the air update of Teslas lurching through parking lots like zombies, getting lost, and struggling to achieve their mission, which is to unpark themselves and drive slowly to wherever the smartphone is that controls them. A few fender benders have been reported as well, but without any clear evidence they were caused by Smart Summon.

Smart Summon is supposed to be a step forward on the road to fully self-driving cars, but if that is so, it seems to some onlookers there is still a long way to go. As the Chinese proverb suggests, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.”

Consumer Reports, which always seems to have a love/hate affair with Tesla automobiles, has tested Smart Summon at its facility in Connecticut. It’s fair to say the new technology was weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing, says consumers are not getting technology that has been fully tested and ready to meet their expectations. He suggests Tesla owners are little more than unpaid beta testers who are volunteering to help Tesla fine tune the Smart Summon technology — even though they are paying $6,000 up front for the autonomous Full Self Driving package. (Not many Tesla owners with Full Self Driving are complaining, while thousands or tens of thousands seem to be thrilled about the opportunity.)

“What consumers are really getting is the chance to participate in a kind of science experiment,” Fisher says. “This is a work in progress.” Ouch!

Consumer Reports says it attempted to contact Tesla several times but never got a response from the company.

“CR’s experience with the system shows that Smart Summon can exit a parking space, turn and start moving toward the vehicle owner, and negotiate around stationary objects. It also can detect and stop for pedestrians and slow down if it senses cross traffic.

“But we found that the system works only intermittently, depending on the car’s reading of the surroundings. The system is designed to work only in private parking lots, but sometimes it seemed confused about where it was. In one case, the system worked in one section of a private lot, but in another part of the lot it mistakenly detected that it was on a public road and shut itself down. At various times, our Model 3 would suddenly stop for no obvious reason.

“When it did work, the Model 3 appeared to move cautiously, which could be a positive from a safety perspective. But it also meant the vehicle took a long time to reach its driver. The Model 3 also didn’t always stay on its side of the lane in the parking lots.”

The vehicles sometimes drove in the middle of two traffic lanes or wandered left and right like a drunk or distracted driver. One car drove the wrong way in a one-way traffic lane, requiring the tester to run to the car and move it manually so traffic could begin flowing again.

“Under the right circumstances, our Model 3, with Smart Summon activated, would slowly and successfully make its way to the person summoning it with a smartphone — and in those cases, the car was indeed controlling itself, steering, braking, and making decisions about its route. But the person operating the app still has the responsibility to monitor the car and keep it out of trouble,” says Consumer Reports.

The system requires the operator to continuously hold down a button on the smartphone, a fail-safe procedure recommended by CR. If the button is released, the car will bring itself to a full stop to await further instructions.

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Tesla Warnings Are Confusing

The testing service says Tesla’s warnings about using the feature in a controlled setting are confusing. The company says to use Smart Summon only in “private” parking lots, but many consumers consider shopping centers parking lots to be public areas, which raises the question of where exactly it can be used.

“Tesla once again is promising ‘full self-driving’ but delivering far less, and now we’re seeing collisions,” says Ethan Douglas, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports in Washington, D.C. “Tesla should stop beta testing its cars on the general public by pushing out experimental features before they’re ready.”

NHTSA told Consumer Reports in a comment that it is aware of the safety concerns related to Smart Summon. It says it has ongoing contact with the company and will continue to gather information. Consumers are encouraged to report any concerns to NHTSA online.

Beta Testing

CleanTechnica is often accused of being a Tesla fanboy site. It is true that we publish a lot of stories about Tesla, most of them favorable. But Tesla has a habit of putting new software in the hands of customers and gathering feedback from their experiences to improve it. That process began when the company began installing the “Hardware 1” self-driving suite of sensors 3 years ago, or even earlier when Autopilot came out 5 years ago.

It continued before the Model 3 was released to the general public when the company delivered early production cars to employees with the understanding that they would uncover any defects and report them when they came to work the next day. What better way to address customer complaints than at the factory where the cars were built?

The argument is that the early release testers are volunteers. The flaw in that argument is that the cars involved in the beta testing are driving on public streets (or parking lots) in the presence of other drivers who are not volunteers and who have no idea beta testing is taking place around them.

It’s like taking a group photograph with the consent of the person in the middle without getting consent from the others. It raises a number of privacy and legal issues that Tesla seems (to some of us) to ignore, claiming its interest in providing cutting-edge technology supersedes such mundane concerns. Regulators may not see things quite the same way.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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