AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A media sensation, a darling of Hollywood, ran into some troubles this week. That would be Tesla Motors. Here's Stephen Colbert waxing on about his Tesla.
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STEPHEN COLBERT: That's right, Tesla owners woke up to find their cars could drive themselves. Finally, a high-tech alternative to jamming a brick on the gas pedal and jumping in the backseat.
CORNISH: That autopilot feature he's talking about has caused some embarrassment for Tesla. There's also been a downgrade in ratings and a fall in its stock price. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: OK, you know the Good Housekeeping seal of approval? Well, in the car world, this man's laboratory and track are the equivalent.
JAKE FISHER: I'm Jake Fisher. I'm the director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.
GLINTON: Now, car executives would not say that Fisher's the kind of guy who gushes, but when Consumer Reports tested the Model S from Tesla...
FISHER: We're out in Connecticut. We have a test track there. We put it through a battery of over 50 tests, and we're looking at everything from acceleration, energy efficiency, you know, handling ride, everything. It just does - there's no one, no car that's better.
GLINTON: OK. So Consumer Reports has a hundred-point scoring system. Initially, the Model S scored 103. It went to 11, y'all. They had to change the scoring system. Fisher says Teslas perform incredibly well. However, after a model upgrade and reliability surveys, Consumer Reports, which is a nonprofit, removed its recommendation.
FISHER: And statistically speaking, this car is more likely to have problems than the average vehicle. And that's not a good thing. You know, when you plunk down this kind of money, you want a car that's going to not just perform really great, but do it every day without headaches.
GLINTON: Almost immediately, Tesla's stock slid by 10 percent, and then things got worse. So there's a feature that Tesla markets as autopilot. It's supposed to help drivers if they're distracted in traffic. Well, after autopilot came out last week, drivers started taping themselves using it going at high speeds with their hands off the wheels and video cameras, and things went wrong.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I just want a pop-up to show up and say brace for impact, you know?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whoa.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: OK, that's...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It didn't do it?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Not right there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, wow.
GLINTON: Alain Kornhauser heads Princeton's Autonomous Vehicle Engineering Team. He says those drivers were being foolish.
ALAIN KORNHAUSER: And they're trying - and they're trying to do a video that they want to go viral and therefore, you know, they're - they're being irresponsible. Absolutely, totally irresponsible.
GLINTON: Kornhauser says every car company has some feature that is a step towards autonomous driving. He says people get way too hyped about Tesla, and it could have an effect on the movement towards driver-less vehicles. Kornhauser says Tesla hasn't really helped the situation.
KORNHAUSER: If somebody gets killed in a Tesla doing this and whatever then it's going to set everybody back. Because I don't think Tesla has prepared itself to be able to deal with the adverse publicity that will follow that.
GLINTON: A Tesla spokesperson says the company explained the feature to customers and has repeatedly warned them to keep their hands on the wheel.
KRISTEN ANDERSSON: So Tesla is a tech company that sells cars.
GLINTON: Kristen Andersson is with Instamotor. She says we're missing something really important. Tesla was able to add the autopilot feature through a software update without their customers having to take their cars into dealerships. That, she says, is the real news in innovation this week.
ANDERSSON: Tesla can push new features to their vehicles at any point in time, as evidenced by this autonomous feature that they were able to push out that effectively changed the way that vehicle was driven - overnight.
GLINTON: Andersson and the others I spoke to for this story say new driver technology is scary, but for Tesla drivers and everyone else, until you hear otherwise, keep your hands on the wheel, seriously. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.