Morgan Stanley analyst: Tesla Autopilot could create a 'moral hazard'

Morgan Stanley lead auto analyst — and somewhat repentant Tesla bull — Adam Jonas published a research note on Thursday in which he reviewed his stance on Autopilot, the semi-self-driving technology that was involved in the fatal crash of a Tesla Model S sedan in Florida in May.

Overall, the note is a realistic and pragmatic take on a system that has suddenly become controversial. The bottom line is that as more Teslas take to the roads, there will be more deaths linked to its cars; that’s just statistics.

Some of those deaths may involve Autopilot, and in any case, more autonomous-driving technologies are coming, from established industry players. For Jonas, this is an inescapable and transformative trend.

But what about the name “Autopilot?”

That one now poses some problems for Jonas:

When you hear the world ‘Autopilot’, you may think of technology for commercial airline pilots which temporarily relieve the human operator from using the aircraft controls. In fact, Tesla Autopilot is meant to be a driver assist and when activating the system, the driver is presented with a warning that he is meant to keep his hands on the wheel at all times to ensure safe operation of the vehicle. Unfortunately, some drivers may be tempted to explore the novelty factor of the system in ways that expose themselves, fellow passengers and other vehicles on public roads to great danger.

Jonas argues that this could “create a consumer expectation problem and a potential moral hazard.”

Which is really a bit of a stretch. It’s just a name, after all.

That said, Tesla and CEO Elon Musk have been amplifying Autopilots capabilities, in order to set it apart form other advanced cruise-control system currently available. However, the company has also been clear since Autopilot’s release last year that the technology is a hands-on-the-wheel-at-all-times, driver-assist technology.

So Tesla isn’t using Autopilot to corrupt drivers’ better natures. Although it may be necessary to adjust its capabilities in the future, or commit to additional driver training before its can be switched on.

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