CA DMV takes aim at Tesla and makers of ‘auto-pilot’ and driverless cars

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has issued a draft of regulations for autonomous cars that appears to take aim at Tesla, calling out for a ban on the use of “auto-pilot” in company messaging. The DMV says the proposal is intended to address “the risk of driver complacency and misuse of lower level systems where drivers are expected to remain fully engaged in the driving task.”

“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,” outlines the DMV in its draft proposal. In order to use such words, cars would need to be equipped with “technology that has the capability of operating or driving the vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” In other words, only cars capable of full Level 5 self-driving operation would be permitted to use the “auto-pilot” term.

After the deadly crash in Florida that took the life of Joshua Brown while driving behind the wheel of a Model S on Autopilot, the editors of Consumer Reports called on Tesla to stop using the term “Autopilot,” claiming that it can be misleading. They also urged the company to disable the autosteer feature that is a critical component of Tesla’s Autopilot system. The argument is that some people may assume Autopilot means their cars are truly self-driving when in fact they are not.

In rebuttal, Tesla has strongly advocated for continuing to call its package of semi-autonomous features “Autopilot”, insisting that it takes great pains to advise drivers that they ultimately remain responsible for the safe operation of their vehicles. In its latest software update, Tesla has even added several visual and audible cues — including what some have called “the red hands of death” warning — to reinforce the point that drivers must keep their hands on the wheel and pay close attention to the road ahead.

The move sets up a possible confrontation between the State of California and Tesla Motors. As reported by the Washington Post, a Tesla spokesperson issued this statement after the DMV draft rules were announced: “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.”

The issue is one of semantics. It is one thing to say that Autopilot is little different from the systems used to control aircraft but very few people have actual knowledge of what goes on inside an airplane cockpit. Tesla has run into difficulties translating the word into other languages accurately. Earlier this year, it amended how it referred to its Autopilot system after a crash on a highway near Beijing. The description on its Chinese website literally translated meant “self driving.”

It is doubtful Tesla will acquiesce to the DMV’s proposal given the company’s long stance that Autopilot is not a self-driving feature and requires driver’s to be alert and attentive by having hands placed on a steering wheel. Expect some major push back on the CA DMV proposed rules before they become final.

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