The newest ad for the Mercedes-Benz E-Class opens on a futuristic, egglike car, wherein humans interact with one another while the car apparently takes care of the driving on its own. A narrator asks, “Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself? An autonomous, thinking automobile that protects those inside and outside? Ready or not, the future is here. The all-new E-Class, self-braking, self-correcting, self-parking. A Mercedes-Benz concept car that’s already a reality. Mercedes-Benz: the best or nothing.”
Sounds great! Except Mercedes-Benz isn’t about to sell you such an autonomous vehicle, no matter what impression the ad, titled “The Future,” may leave with consumers. And that might get Mercedes into some trouble.
Consumer and safety advocates sent a letter on Wednesday to the director of the Federal Trade Commission protesting the implications of the marketing campaign. They explained in their letter that E-Class, which has remote-parking and smart-braking features, doesn’t meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s criteria to be considered a fully or partially self-driving car and that such advertising will lead consumers to believe that it is. The group specifically asks that the FTC take action against Mercedes-Benz for its “potentially deceptive advertising.”
Why the confusion? What isn’t necessarily clear when viewing the ad is that Mercedes is essentially showcasing two things at once: the company’s vision for a future autonomous car (in the form of an existing concept vehicle) and the actual E-Class on the market. Despite the narrator’s claims, the future depicted in the ad isn’t quite here.
On Thursday a Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman defended the ad, saying that, “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 Future,’ featuring the F015 concept car, is intended to draw the connection between that vision and the innovations that are in today’s Mercedes-Benz models.”
Fair enough—but you can see their critics’ point. The ad testifies that the car is “self-braking, self-correcting, self-parking,” but the language never quite draws a line between the attributes of the two cars on display.
It may be second nature for most of us not to expect that any implied promises in commercials will be met, but in the case of autonomous cars, any confusion could have life-or-death consequences. Since the death of the Tesla Model S driver whose accident occurred while the vehicle was in “autopilot” mode, self-driving car manufacturers have been under greater scrutiny. Some restraint from Mercedes and others in pushing their own cars would clearly be wise.