Mercedes Accused of False Advertisement

Mercedes-Benz has been accused of using misleading language in an ad for its new E-Class luxury sedan. A number of consumer advocacy groups have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company, alleging it misrepresented the car in question’s self-driving ability.

A print ad earlier this month depicted a vehicle that was not in fact self-driving, with the tagline, “A self-driving car from a very self-driven company.”

The E-Class is not in fact self-driving – it features what are called “driver assistance systems,” these include adaptive cruise control, blind spot and lane departure warning systems, etc. In this case, the E-Class comes equipped with what Mercedes calls “Drive Pilot.”

These tools would be categorized as “Level Two” autonomous systems, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines as: “at least two controls can be automated in unison, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane keeping.”

A true self-driving car would be a “Level Four” system. According to NHTSA, this is a system in which “the vehicle performs all safety-critical functions for the entire trip, with the driver not expected to control the vehicle at any time. As this vehicle would control all functions from start to stop, including all parking functions, it could include unoccupied cars.”

A representative for the German automaker, when reached for comment by automotive blog Jalopnik, stated that although the E-Class was not in fact self-driving, they considered that phrase “industry vernacular.” They also acknowledged that this language could be misleading: “That said, the Tesla incident indicates a need to be even more specific in this regard…it is not an autonomous vehicle and we will not be positioning it as such.”

However, a recent video ad for the E-Class has drawn some concern for possible misrepresentation. This ad is a step in the right direction in that it does not specifically label the car as self-driving; however, issue is that it shows the driver removing his hands from the steering wheel and not putting them back on – Mercedes’ Drive Pilot system requires a driver to maintain contact with the wheel at least every 30 seconds.

These most recent allegations were made in a letter to the FTC, signed by representatives of Consumer Reports, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Center for Auto Safety, together with former FTC administrator Joan Claybrook.

The letter describes the ads as

“potentially deceptive to consumers. 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. In addition to a consumer possibly purchasing a car while being misled about its capabilities, the misrepresentations by Mercedes-Benz could give consumers a false sense of security in the ability of the car to operate autonomously. This misrepresentation is material because it significantly involves safety or is likely to affect a consumer’s conduct or decision with regard to the car.”

The ad does contain the following fine print at the bottom of the screen:

“Vehicle can not 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 road traffic regulations.”

However, according to the letter, this does not let Mercedes off the hook, per the FTC’s own rules.

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