Yet there aren’t actually any self-driving cars for sale today, according to autonomous vehicle experts and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates cars. Tesla’s “full self-driving” is more like an enhanced cruise control, they say.
Tesla says that a human driver needs to be watching and ready to take over at any moment, and the company is only allowing initial access to the system to the people it considers the safest drivers.
Despite those limits, Tesla is free to call its technology “full self-driving.” Tesla owners who download the “full self-driving” beta must check a box confirming that they understand they are responsible for remaining alert with their hands on the wheel, and must be prepared to take action at any time. “Full self-driving” does not make their car autonomous, it says.
A person buying a Tesla vehicle on its website sees the technology described in big, bold letters as “full self-driving,” but the fine print below that says the technology is a driver-assist technology. Driver-assist technologies are intended to help a human drive more safely, with features such as forward collision warning, blind spot warning and lane departure warning systems.
The US government has no performance standards for automated driver-assist technologies, Reimer said. Tesla or any automaker can essentially do whatever they want when it comes to these technologies.
“We’re at mercy of the auto manufacturers to put in safe systems. We are reliant on drivers wanting to be risk adverse,” Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety told CNN Business. “The combination of those two is a perfect storm for future disasters.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment and generally does not engage with the professional news media.
“When drivers’ expectations exceed their vehicle’s capabilities, serious and fatal accidents can and do result,” they wrote.
The Federal Trade Commission, which is tasked with protecting consumers from deceptive or unfair business practices, declined to tell CNN Business why it has not taken any action against Tesla. The FTC also said it does not comment on whether it has any open investigations, a spokesperson said.
Picking the wrong technology
NHTSA and Congress, which can push the agency to regulate specific things, missed an opportunity to focus on driver-assist technologies in recent years, according to autonomous driving and law experts.
“It’s jumping ahead many, many steps while we’re not addressing what could be saving lives right now,” Chase said.
Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina law school, said that European regulators are far ahead of the United States on regulating driver-assist technologies. Smith said that technologies like pedestrian detection and automatic braking are sensible to mandate on new cars, and there should be performance standards for them.
“There’s low-hanging fruit,” Smith said. “We could save lives far earlier than we have self-driving cars.”