Tesla Autopilot: The good, the bad, the constraints and the rules

Did it seem like Tesla owners got to (semi) autonomous driving much faster than anyone else? Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during this week’s earnings call that 40,000 Tesla vehicles now have autopilot software, which helps steer, change lanes, parallel park and manage speed.

The features were released mid-October via over-the-air updates, which ensured speedy delivery without pesky regulations because the software is still in beta. Tesla told drivers to be cautious and keep their hands on the wheel, but you know how that goes. Some videos that have surfaced online have raised safety concerns. (There’s the video of a Tesla driver in the back seat, one titled “Tesla Autopilot tried to kill me!” and more.)

This week, Musk reportedly said: “There have been some fairly crazy videos on YouTube. This is not good. And we will be putting some additional constraints on when Autopilot can be activated to minimize the possibility of people doing crazy things.”

Update: When asked what kind of constraints Tesla might be rolling out, a spokeswoman told SiliconBeat that the company had “nothing additional to share yet” beyond Musk’s comments.

But Musk did say Autopilot already has helped drivers avoid several collisions. And last week, one Tesla owner in Seattle posted a video of his vehicle’s autopilot braking to avoid an accident — although Consumer Reports rained on that parade: “In the YouTube title, the driver says Autopilot deserves credit for avoiding the accident, as the description explains that he didn’t see the car coming nor have his foot on the brake. However, the reality is that forward-collision warning with automatic braking is the hero—a feature that many brands offer across the price spectrum.” The magazine said “forward-collision warning with autobrake” has been available on Teslas for more than a year.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Miller, associate professor of engineering practice at the University of Southern California and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, told the Verge that Tesla’s beta software is tricky for regulators.

“Very rarely do we get proactive laws. They’re always reactive,” Miller said. “Right now we have an opportunity to get in front of the technology. We’ve had these small, incremental releases to the public, and we’ll continue to see small, incremental releases until we see a completely driverless vehicle around 2019, 2020.”

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles told my colleague Matt O’Brien that the state is categorizing Tesla’s Autopilot as Level 2 technology, which means it’s “helping drivers make better decisions.” Levels 3 and 4 are for cars that actually make the decisions, according to DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. California is expected to be the first state to adopt consumer self-driving rules next year.


Photo: A Tesla Model S at the company’s Palo Alto headquarters. (Patrick Tehan/Mercury News archives)


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