Will Tesla's Self-Driving Cars Be Legal?

The big question of course is who is responsible for accidents when autopilot fails—the car company? The driver? Or the system?

Will Tesla's Self-Driving Cars Be Legal?

Photo by: The Radio Scout

This week, while you were, perhaps, ensconced in the presidential debate or watching the Dodgers in the playoffs, Tesla made a sneaky little announcement that is going to change the way their autonomous cars will hit the road.

Regulating Self-Driving Cars

If you’ve been following along the autonomous car debate, you know that there’s a lot involved, mainly centered around safety issues. Back in July a Tesla operating in self-driving mode killed a driver when it failed to see the white side of a tractor trailer. Another driver was killed in a Tesla operating in autonomous mode back in May, as well. Since then there have been an increasing number of reports of accidents from around the world that owners and regulators alike argue were the failure of both drivers and Tesla’s autopilot system. Government regulators are stepping in and starting to have serious discussions (and open up investigations into the crashes) about the future of self-driving vehicles and what it could mean for everyone on the road.

First, to understand the debate you need to have some context. There are currently 10 states that have self-driving laws in place. They include Nevada (the first state to allow self-driving cars back in 2011), California, Utah, Arizona, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, North Dakota and Washington, D.C. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 34 states have considered autonomous legislation in some form or another.

Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, has said that the new cars will be capable of what’s known as Level 5 autonomy. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determines the various levels of autonomy. They start at 0 and go to level 5. Think of level 0 as you would old cars—the driver controls it all. Level 1-3 are essentially cars we have on the roads today. They have safety features like antilock brakes, lane keeping assistants, parking helpers and sensors to keep us from backing into things. Level 4 and 5 are fully autonomous vehicles—one where you can put in a destination and the car drives the entire trip without input from the driver.

Back in September, after more Tesla autopilot crashes came to light, NHTSA announced it was going to investigate the crashes and see what, if anything it could enact to make the cars safer. They also updated their policy for HAVs or Highly Autonomous Vehicles, like Teslas with autopilot. The update includes 15 best practices for manufacturers regarding safe pre-deployment procedures for the technology and testing of the systems before making them available to the public.

All Tesla Vehicles Will Include Self-Driving Hardware

Wednesday night, however, Tesla announced that, going forward it would include autonomous hardware into all new cars. That’s not that big of a deal—but what is, is that, in theory, those cars will be capable of Level 5 driving. Musk said that all Model X (the weird looking egg-shaped crossover thing) and Model S vehicles would come equipped with the technology package as an $8,000 add on and include eight cameras, 12 updated sensors, and a radar system that has faster processing. What’s more is that Musk has said that Tesla will be able to drive from LA to New York completely autonomously by 2017. That’s an ambitious goal that could get mired down in a lot of issues given the rather patchwork nature of autonomous driving laws in various states across the country.

So why would Tesla decide to include this kind of hardware when it would be illegal to use it in much of the country? Well as one analyst from Edmunds pointed out in a Reuters story, it’s really more of a “vanity purchase” than anything else. On the other hand Tesla’s stock has been rather battered recently and Elon Musk, a man not known for keeping his cool, is anxious to bolster the performance and prove doubters wrong.

The big question of course is who is responsible for accidents when autopilot fails—the car company? The driver? Or the system? This week Elon Musk said that Tesla would only take responsibility for instances when the autopilot system failed. That’s a very narrow definition of responsibility but one that makes sense from a company’s standpoint. Musk said that it would be up to the insurance companies to determine who was truly responsible for the problem—but he did acquiesce that if there was a problem with the system or the car, Tesla would take responsibility for it, according to a story over at BGR.

Other Manufacturers Are In The Race, Too

The other issue that’s facing Tesla is that there is a good possibility that another, larger car company, will beat it to the autonomous driving punch. Many manufacturers including Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo all have highly advanced autonomous features in their new cars. You can even get some of these cars used right here on Instamotor—in fact—here are seven affordable semi-autonomous cars you should look for. Most of those systems use Lidar, a system that Tesla has chosen to forego and most of them are actually already fully autonomous already. There are safety features in place—like the requirement in a Mercedes-Benz that you put your hand back on the steering wheel once every few seconds—to ensure that drivers don’t abuse the autopilot system. Mercedes could technically make the car completely autonomous if it wanted to—but it hasn’t done so yet because the legal lay of the land is so murky.

Additionally, as a result of the deaths in cars being driven autonomously, across the country and around the world, state and national governments are starting to more closely examine autonomous driving and vehicles. That could completely hamstring the deployment of any of the features that Musk is making available in his vehicles now, making them essentially obsolete before they even hit the market.

The other aspect of the announcement that seems a bit befuddling is the fact that older models, without the additional cameras and sensors, will not be able to drive autonomously, though according to the Reuters story, their systems will continue to be updated. Basically the new cars rolling off the production line, with the new hardware, will have less capability than the old ones currently do. Though Musk says he expects that both the old and new vehicles will have the same capabilities by December.

The truth is that the whole Tesla-autopilot thing is a bit of a confusion stew given the intersection of public safety, technology, and government. We here at Instamotor will keep an eye on it and keep you posted on any updates.

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Abigail BassettAbigail Bassett

Digital media content producer/consultant & former CNN senior producer, now running CN'TRL : Cars, Tech, Real Estate & Luxury.