The Tesla AutoPilot suite of self driving features is expected to roll out this summer, but autonomous lane-changing may not be part of the package, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. That’s because of legal constraints, not digital ones.
The concern is that a car capable of initiating a passing maneuver without input from the driver will be considered a Class 3 autonomous car. Several states, including California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan, require the driver of a Class 3 vehicle to have advanced training and a special registration.
Tesla may be racing into the future but the law is straining to keep pace. “Tesla is venturing into the mushy middle of automation, where the human still performs part of the driving task, the computer performs other parts,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at University of South Carolina who has carved out a specialty on autonomous vehicles.
Elon Musk says the Tesla AutoPilot will offer more advanced features than any other car and will be capable of handling most driving duties on the highway. “The upcoming AutoPilot updates will delight Model S drivers with cool features that increase both their safety and enjoyment behind the wheel,” he says. AutoPilot will be available only on cars built since October, 2014.
Professor Smith tells the Wall Street Journal that Tesla is already pushing the limits of current laws with its autonomous driving software. (Based on the observable evidence, Elon Musk was born to push the limits of current laws!) Smith says, even if a car has a special autonomous license, that doesn’t exempt it from other laws on the books.
For instance, New York requires drivers to have one hand on the wheel at all times. Many other states prohibit talking on the phone or texting while driving, even if the car is in autonomous mode. Shaving, painting one’s nails and playing Pinochle while driving are also frowned upon by the minions of the law, at least for now.
No matter how sophisticated digital technology becomes, the driver is still expected to be “engaged” in the driving process. Tesla’s argument to regulators is that activating the turn signal demonstrates the required degree of engagement and that the driver has considered whether passing at that particular moment and that particular place is prudent and safe.
The WSJ says the autonomous passing feature is expected to be included in a subsequent update after the initial AutoPilot software is downloaded. There is no word from Tesla when that update is expected.
Video showing Tesla’s AutoPilot with lane changing capabilities captured via SlashGear from the Tesla ‘D’ event.