Late last Friday, the California Division of Motor Vehicles released a draft of new regulations it is planning to implement. First and foremost, the rules would prohibit Tesla from using the word “Autopilot” to refer to its suite of semi-autonomous driving features. Tesla is not likely to let that happen without a fight.
The proposed regulations include this language: “The terms ‘self-driving,’ ‘automated,’ ‘auto-pilot,’ and other statements that lead a reasonable person to believe a vehicle is autonomous constitute advertising regulated by the truth-in-advertising provisions in the Vehicle Code.” The DMV says a truly autonomous vehicle is “equipped with technology that has the capability of operating or driving the vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.”State regulators are concerned about “the risk of driver complacency and misuse of lower level systems where drivers are expected to remain fully engaged in the driving task.” It said drivers must be aware of the limitations.
Over the weekend, a Tesla spokesperson defended the company’s use of the word. “Autopilot makes driving safer and less stressful, and we have always been clear that it does not make a car autonomous any more than its namesake makes an aircraft autonomous,” a Tesla spokeswoman said.
The problem is more one of semantics than technology. It is all well and good to say that the system Tesla uses in its cars is virtually the same as the systems used to help pilots fly airplanes, but the truth is that very few people have any idea what goes on in the cockpit during a flight. The pilot and co-pilot could be up there playing Pinochle for all we know. The standard is not what Elon Musk thinks the word means. The standard is what a driver of normal intelligence and experience thinks it means. Actually, from the point of view of regulators, it’s more about what the person of below average intelligence and experience thinks it means.
A Tesla owner in China claims he was told by a Tesla sales representative that the cars drive themselves. In fact until changed recently, on Tesla’s Chinese website and in its Chinese sales literature, the word Autopilot was translated as “self driving.” That language has now been tightened up.
To be fair to Tesla, it has responded to the clueless clods it thinks misuse the Autopilot system in its latest software update. It has added a number of visual and audible warnings if the system detects the driver is not keeping a hand on the wheel. First, a bright white warning flashes around the perimeter of the instrument panel. If that doesn’t work, “the red hands of death” appear, showing two hands gripping the steering wheel. If that happens three times in a 60 minute period, Autopilot is disabled until the car is brought to a complete stop and placed in Park.
Don’t expect Elon Musk and Tesla to acquiesce to these proposed rules. When Musk gets an idea into his head, he is difficult to dissuade and that’s putting it mildly. He has already beaten regulators to the punch by enabling the Autopilot system before there were any regulations against it, using the logic known to all teenagers which is that asking permission conveys the power to say no. Now regulators are playing catch up.
In September, federal regulators proposed a fairly permissive set of rules designed not to stifle innovation in the field. California now wants to go a step further. From now on, the argument from Tesla and other car companies will be that self-driving features are already safer than human drivers, so any restrictions by governments will mean more traffic accidents and more highway deaths than necessary. The logic conclusion of that argument is that there should be no restrictions at all.
Expect furious push back on the proposed rules from Tesla. The last chapter to this story has yet to be written.
Source: Washington Post Photo credit: Tesla Motors