Tesla’s self-driving software: Is it street legal?

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Tesla Motors this week became the first company to roll out advanced auto-pilot technology into its vehicles, zooming past regulators’ efforts to figure out whether self-driving cars should be widely street-legal.

Tesla Version 7.0, a software update released wirelessly to Tesla vehicles on Wednesday, includes a suite of self-piloting and convenience features that allow drivers to hand over control of most maneuvers to the vehicle’s array of sensors, cameras and GPS. The “Autopilot” feature allows cars to steer within a lane, change lanes, manage speed and control brakes. It also enables the vehicle to scan for parking spaces, and parallel park itself on demand.

Tesla’s introductory blogpost likened the Autopilot feature to “the systems that airplane pilots use when conditions are clear,” stating that “truly driverless cars are still a few years away.” But given that Teslas can now function with near-complete autonomy on the highway, the new software raises urgent questions about the legality of self-driving cars.

The potential benefits are well documented: Google estimates that autonomous cars could save $400 billion in accident-related costs and an additional $100 billion in wasted fuel annually. It has also suggested that they might prevent up to 90 percent of automobile deaths, which average more than 30,000 per year in the U.S.

Yet across most of the U.S., regulations for self-driving cars are ambiguous. In the majority of states, autonomous vehicles are not specifically illegal; New York is the only state that mandates a “driver” must have a hand on the wheel at all times. Only 14 states have considered legislation that would regulate self-driving cars, and nine of those failed to pass bills specifically legalizing them — including Colorado, Arizona, Louisiana and New Hampshire.

In most states, then, Tesla’s autopilot feature is a gray area within a gray area — and federal regulators seemed caught off guard this week.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration declined to comment Friday but referred FedScoop to statements made early this year by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, lauding the potential safety benefits.

“The Department wants to speed the nation toward an era when vehicle safety isn’t just about surviving crashes; it’s about avoiding them,” Foxx said. “Connected, automated vehicles that can sense the environment around them and communicate with other vehicles and with infrastructure have the potential to revolutionize road safety and save thousands of lives.”

The DOT has taken a number of steps towards enhancing safety through autonomous technology, including the addition of two state-of-the-art automatic electric braking systems to the list of advanced safety features recommended under its New Car Assessment Program. Tesla’s semi-autonomous Version 7.0, which promises to enhance safety in “the most dangerous parts of driving,” appears well-aligned with DOT’s goals.

“Today marks an enormous leap in the evolution of auto safety by encouraging adoption of new technologies to keep drivers and their passengers safe on our roads,” said Foxx of the new braking systems. “I want this Department, the entire automotive industry, and other innovators to keep raising the bar on safety like we are doing now.”

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Anthony Foxx, Autonomous, NHTSA, self-driving, Tesla, Tesla Autopilot
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