How California Could Force Tesla to Drop the ‘Fully Self-Driving’ Name

By Matt McFarland | CNN Business

“Complete self-driving,” Tesla’s controversial driver-assist feature, may have finally met its match.

Tesla’s foil is not a silver-haired U.S. senator, world-class self-driving experts, or some of the nation’s most prominent safety advocates. They all warned that “fully self-driving” isn’t really fully self-driving. The technology is designed to navigate local roads with steering, braking and acceleration, but it requires an attentive human driver who is ready to take control and correct the system, which “can do the wrong thing at the worst time”, warns You’re here.

But while these critics may have the traditional bullying pulpit of the Senate or other institutions, they have no real power to change policy on their own. Instead, real impact may come from an unglamorous public agency that many Americans consider uniquely capable of providing customers with long wait times: the Department of Motor Vehicles. The California DMV has become the first US government entity to formally oppose the term “fully self-driving”.

Automobile regulation traditionally falls to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation, and Congress, which can push NHTSA to regulate specific things like driver assistance technology. But NHTSA and Congress have spent the past few years swept up in excitement and lobbying surrounding a more eye-catching technology – fully autonomous vehicles.

The NHTSA has even exempted some robotaxis from its safety standards and described many of the potential benefits of these technologies, including better quality of life, safer roads, shorter commutes, reduced energy consumption and better access to jobs. It has been claimed in the past that leaving “room for innovation” has led to the development of technologies like airbags. Self-driving cars and trucks could, in theory, revolutionize transportation and save millions of lives if crashes become rare, as proponents of the technology have predicted.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed self-driving car legislation. It did not act on the more pedestrian driver assistance technologies.

NHTSA doesn’t have standards for these systems, which has effectively left automakers like Tesla to decide what’s safe enough. But there are strong signs over the past year that NHTSA is shifting some of its focus to driver assist technologies. He announced last summer, for example, that automakers must report driver assistance crashes.

NHTSA also cited its powers to protect the public from motor vehicle hazards that it received when it was established in 1970.

“Given the rapid evolution of these technologies and the testing of new technologies and features on publicly accessible roads, it is critical that NHTSA exercise strict oversight over potential safety defects,” he said. .

The NHTSA has even taken steps toward standards for a driver assistance feature, Automatic Emergency Braking. But the first major regulatory impact could come from that unlikely contender, the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Most Americans’ interactions with their own state DMV are limited to dreary, underfunded offices with long lines and beleaguered staff. Most people are there to fill out forms and pay fees for various bureaucratic tasks that the agency undertakes.

But that’s not all of the California DMV.

It has long been a leader in autonomous vehicle regulation, largely because many companies developing autonomous vehicles are based in California. It released its own rules for testing self-driving vehicles in 2015 and didn’t shy away from the conflict.

Uber provoked the DMV in 2017 when it tested self-driving vehicles in San Francisco without a DMV permit required. The DMV revoked Uber’s vehicle registrations in response, and Uber removed its cars from San Francisco streets. (Uber fled to looser Arizona regulations, but was kicked out of the state in 2018 after one of its test vehicles was involved in a high-profile fatal accident. It later sold its business of robotaxi in 2020.)

Now the California DMV is flexing the kind of muscle that could force Tesla to drop the “fully self-driving” name, according to self-driving experts.

The DMV recently filed a complaint that Tesla’s description of its driver assistance technologies, Autopilot and “fully autonomous driving”, is misleading and warrants the suspension or revocation of its license to sell cars. motor vehicles in the state. The risk of losing such a license may force Tesla’s hand. The automaker was founded in California, it manufactures most of its cars in California, and its vehicles are among the best-selling in California. “Fully autonomous driving” is even designed to look its best in the San Francisco Bay Area of ​​California.

Tesla’s use of the words “completely autonomous” and “Autopilot,” as well as its descriptors of the technology on its website, suggest the vehicles are self-driving, when they are not, the DMV says in its statement. complaint.

Tesla has long referred to the limitations of its systems as disclaimers. But the DMV says in its complaint that a warning from Tesla “contradicts the original false or misleading labels and claims, which is misleading and does not remedy the violation.”

It’s unclear how the differences between Tesla and the DMV could be resolved, and the dispute could include lengthy litigation.

A settlement could include changes to how Tesla talks about systems on its website, a promise to avoid similar behavior in the future, or even new names for its products, according to faculty professor Bryant Walker Smith. of Law from the University of South Carolina. who studies autonomous vehicles.

“Complete self-driving describes a system that is used by a driver. It makes me dizzy,” Smith said. “How can a driver use a complete self-driving system? »

Tesla claimed in 2016 that all of its new vehicles had the hardware capability of “fully self-driving”, and that it would soon offer complementary software to allow cars to drive themselves. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said every year from 2015 to 2022 that self-driving Teslas were probably a year or two away. Tesla has released a beta version of “full self-driving” to more than 100,000 drivers, but the software requires constant vigilance because it sometimes makes dangerous decisions.

This is not the first fight on this type of language. A German court ruled in 2020 that Tesla’s language was misleading, which the automaker appealed last year.

Waymo, the self-driving subsidiary of Google’s parent company, stopped using the term “self-driving” in 2021, saying misuse by other automakers gave the public the wrong impression of its capabilities. Waymo has started calling its robotaxis “fully autonomous”. Waymo, which operates robotaxis in the Phoenix area, doesn’t need a human in the driver’s seat to ensure safe operation.

California DMV actions are officially limited to the state, but the impact could be far greater. It is routine for California to lead regulations and for other states to follow, such as vehicle emission standards. California’s large population makes customizing vehicles just for that state too expensive for most automakers.

“Once you talk about one state investigating, you can talk about 50 states potentially investigating,” Smith said, adding that it will get easier politically and factually. “They don’t stick out their necks.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

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