How Tesla Can Sell “Fully Autonomous Driving” Software That Doesn’t Really Drive By Itself
By Matt McFarland, CNN Business
You’re here CEO Elon Musk has noted the company will roll out the latest beta of its “fully autonomous driving” software to 1,000 owners this weekend.
Still, there are currently no self-driving cars for sale, according to autonomous vehicle experts and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates cars. Tesla’s “fully autonomous driving” is more like improved cruise control, they say.
Videos posted on the Internet by people who already have the function unlocked shows that it can stop at traffic lights and turn smoothly at intersections, but it can also veer towards pedestrians or confuse the moon for a traffic light.
Tesla says that a the human driver must be vigilant and ready to take over at any time, and the company allows initial access to the system only to those whom it considers the safest drivers.
Despite these limitations, Tesla is free to call its technology “fully autonomous driving”. Tesla owners who download the “fully autonomous driving” beta should check a box confirming that they understand they are responsible for staying alert with their hands on the wheel and should be prepared to take action at all times. “Full self-driving” doesn’t make their car self-sufficient, she says.
A person who purchases a Tesla vehicle from their website considers the technology described in large bold type to be “fully autonomous driving,” but the small print below indicates that the technology is driver assistance technology. Driver assistance technologies are intended to help a human drive safer, with features like forward collision warning, blind spot warning and lane departure warning systems .
“The problem is, Tesla has one foot on both sides,” said Bryan Reimer, an MIT AGELab scientist whose research focused on driver attention with Tesla’s functionality.
The U.S. government does not have performance standards for automated driver assistance technologies, Reimer said. Tesla or any automaker can basically do whatever they want when it comes to these technologies.
“We are at the mercy of the car manufacturers to put in place safe systems. We depend on drivers who want to avoid risk, ”Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety, told CNN Business. “The combination of these two is a perfect storm for future disasters.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment and does not generally engage with professional news media.
There are signs that the NHTSA is moving towards regulating driver assistance technology, but how quickly that could happen remains to be seen. It can take years for a rule-making process to complete, and sometimes an administration can interrupt a process initiated by a previous administration. The NHTSA agenda earlier this year called for proposing a rule that would set performance standards for automatic emergency braking as well as a test to determine whether automakers are complying with them.
The NHTSA launched an investigation this summer into Tesla’s rear end emergency vehicles while using autopilot. Chase said she was concerned that Tesla technology could play a role in other types of accidents that we are not yet aware of.
Autonomous driving experts have long warned that Tesla’s description of “fully autonomous driving” and its more rudimentary predecessor, autopilot, could cause drivers to over-trust the technology. Tesla drivers have already died in high-profile crashes using autopilot, drawing reprimands from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Connecticut Democrats Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal have called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Tesla and take enforcement action because Tesla’s marketing overestimates the capabilities of its vehicles, they say.
“When drivers’ expectations exceed the capabilities of their vehicle, serious and fatal accidents can result,” they wrote.
The Federal Trade Commission, which is responsible for protecting consumers from deceptive or unfair marketing practices, declined to tell CNN Business why it has taken no action against Tesla. The FTC also said it did not comment on whether it opened any investigations, a spokesperson said.
Choosing the wrong technology
NHTSA and Congress, which can push the agency to regulate specific things, have missed an opportunity to focus on driver assistance technologies in recent years, according to autonomous driving experts and the law.
Rather than regulating driver assistance, they focused on self-driving vehicles, the types of cars that wouldn’t need steering wheels or pedals. The United States House of Representatives passed a Self-Driving Car Act in 2017. The NHTSA has issued several versions of guidelines for fully autonomous vehicles.
“This is taking a lot of steps forward as we are not tackling what could save lives right now,” Chase said.
The decision to focus on breakthrough technology follows years of hype from independent companies. Some of the biggest names in the industry have said the technology is only years away. But autonomous driving software has proven to be incredibly difficult, and companies have failed to hit the mark. Only Waymo offers autonomous robotaxi service, and it’s located in a limited part of the greater Phoenix area. On rainy days, Waymo’s vehicles require a human behind the wheel.
Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina Law School, said European regulators are way ahead of the United States in regulating driver assistance technology. Smith said technologies like pedestrian detection and automatic braking are sensitive to mandate on new cars, and there should be performance standards for them.
“There is fruit at hand,” Smith said. “We could save lives much sooner than we have self-driving cars.”
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