Hitting the Brakes on Confusing Car Claims

Consumer Reports scored a victory for safety by successfully pushing Mercedes-Benz to stop an advertising campaign that wrongly billed its 2017 E-Class sedan as self-driving.

The automaker’s print ads touted the car’s advancements by calling it “a self-driving car," and its television ads included a misleading voice-over and footage of the driver taking his hands off the wheel, which could leave the impression that the car drives autonomously.

Though the new E-Class does offer “driver assistance” systems, including advanced cruise control and automated steering, it doesn’t meet the government’s definition of a fully or even a partially self-driving car. That was painfully obvious during our test of the sedan, which headed off the road when we (mis)used the system on a gently curving off-ramp.

In the space of a single day, Consumer Reports tested the new E-Class, joined other auto safety groups in sending a letter of complaint (PDF) to the Federal Trade Commission, and publicly called on Mercedes to take action. The automaker pulled the ads the day after.

“We’re relieved that they’re doing the right thing for consumers, who deserve clear communication about what new technologies in vehicles can and cannot do,” says William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports.

Fighting Merger Mania in Health Insurance

The Department of Justice is suing to block two proposed mergers, each between two of the nation’s five largest health insurers, saying the deals violate competition laws and would ultimately leave consumers with fewer policy options, higher premiums, and less access to quality care.

The government is challenging Aetna’s $37 billion deal to buy Humana and a $54 billion acquisition of Cigna by Anthem; the latter would be the largest merger in the history of the health insurance industry. Anthem claims that it expects the merger to save it $2 billion in operating costs, but the company won’t make any pledges to pass on those savings to policyholders.

Prior to the DOJ’s suit, Consumer Reports and other advocacy groups met with and raised concerns to the DOJ. One important reason: Research suggests that previous health insurance mergers haven’t worked out well for consumers.

For example, a July 2015 study in the Journal of Health Economics concluded that insurance premiums tend to be higher in markets with less competition. And a study from 2012 found that premiums went up after Aetna and Prudential merged in 1999.

A federal trial to determine whether the Anthem-Cigna deal can move forward is expected to start as early as mid-November. The Aetna-Humana trial is slated to take place some time in December of 2016. Check ConsumerReports.­org for our updates on the proceedings as they unfold.

Protecting Your Legal Right to Complain

If you’ve ever been less than satisfied with a purchase, you may have promptly posted a negative review online. But speaking out like that can sometimes trigger legal action or financial penalties.

It stems from a sneaky item buried in the fine print of some contracts for goods and services. Called a “non-disparagement clause,” it’s basically a forced “agreement” that a consumer will never write a bad review about what she’s buying. The buyers are almost never aware of the clauses—but even if they were, they have no choice but to sign if they want the products.

In one case, an online retailer slapped a couple with a $3,500 bill after they posted a negative review about their purchase. There have been reports of similar attempts to enforce clauses by a variety of businesses, ranging from landlords to wedding contractors—even pet sitters.

Consumer Reports believes the clauses are an outrageous attempt to silence the consumer voice in the marketplace. Customer reviews are an important way in which people share knowledge and hold businesses accountable. That’s why we support a bipartisan-backed bill in Congress called the Consumer Review Fairness Act, which would render such clauses null and void. The Senate voted for it last year; a House committee recently approved a similar measure.

The bill also gives the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general the authority to take enforcement action against businesses that attempt to use those clauses to keep consumers quiet. We’ll keep pushing for the legislation to protect all of our rights.

Editor's Note This article also appeared in the November 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.