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Tesla's Smart Summon Performance Doesn't Match Marketing Hype

Consumer Reports logo Consumer Reports 6 days ago Jeff Plungis
a hand holding a smart phone sitting on top of a car© Provided by Consumers Union of United States, Inc.

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Research

Consumer Reports tested Tesla’s recently launched Smart Summon feature on our Model 3, and we found that the automation was glitchy and at times worked intermittently, without a lot of obvious benefits for consumers. 

We tested the feature over several days at our Auto Test Center in Colchester, Conn., and in nearby parking lots. Our analysis comes on the heels of a flurry of social media posts from Tesla owners critical of the feature.

Tesla says Smart Summon is one of the first products in a suite of technologies it markets as “Full Self-Driving.” The automaker activated the feature for car owners using an over-the-air update at the end of September. 

In online marketing materials (and in public comments from CEO Elon Musk), Tesla says owners using a smartphone can summon their vehicles to come pick them up to help in everyday situations, such as to avoid walking across a parking lot in the rain or with an armful of groceries.

The Model 3 owner’s manual contains numerous warnings of Smart Summon’s limitations, including that it can’t be used on public roads and can’t detect all traffic or curbs. But some owners on social media have reported minor fender benders while using the feature in parking lots and at low speeds.

Smart Summon has drawn the attention of U.S. regulators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it’s in contact with Tesla to gather information about the feature.   

Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing, says consumers are not getting fully tested, consumer-ready technology. In essence, he says, Tesla owners are being enlisted as beta testers to help fine-tune the technology for the future—even though they’re paying $6,000 up front for the promised automation.  

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

For more than a year before its release, Musk stoked interest in Smart Summon with public comments, describing how Tesla owners would be able to use their vehicles like remote-controlled toys that could follow car owners around like pets. 

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. 

Over several days, CR repeatedly has asked Tesla for comment. CR has called the company and also emailed multiple written questions asking about the Smart Summon technology. The company hasn’t yet returned our calls or responded to our questions. 

How It Drives

In tests at one lot and at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, the vehicle drove in the middle of the traffic lane, not on the side closer to the parked cars, as a human driver would. It would wander left and right as it drove—erratically, like a drunken or distracted driver. In another instance, the Model 3 drove itself the wrong way on a one-way lane. The tester had to run out to the car to move it to allow traffic to 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 driving itself, steering, braking, and making decisions about its route.

The system requires the user to press and hold the “go-to-target” button on the smartphone app. Releasing the button will immediately stop the vehicle. CR pushed Tesla to include this kind of “dead man’s control”—common on other kinds of potentially dangerous equipment, such as lawn mowers—after it was missing from an earlier 2016 version of the Summon self-parking feature.

Tesla’s warnings about using the feature in a controlled setting are confusing. The company’s guidance is to use Smart Summon in “private” parking lots, but many consumers would consider shopping centers as a kind of public space, raising 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.”

Asked for comment, NHTSA said it’s aware of the accounts of safety concerns related to Smart Summon. The agency said that it has ongoing contact with the company and that it will continue to gather information. Consumers are encouraged to report any concerns on the NHTSA complaint database, which regulators use to track potential safety defects. 

Separately, NHTSA published a petition late last week from a group of Tesla owners about an alleged battery defect in the Model S and Model X. According to the petition, Tesla released a software update last year that reduced the possibility of battery fires but failed to disclose the alleged defect to NHTSA as required by law. NHTSA says it is deciding whether a formal defect investigation is needed. 

CR will continue to monitor the development of Smart Summon, with more testing as the technology gets refined. 

a red car parked in a parking lot© Provided by Consumers Union of United States, Inc.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2019, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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