California reviews Tesla's 'self-driving car' tests for regulations

'Full self-driving' vehicles require human intervention and therefore might not fit under autonomous driving rules

Visitors check a Tesla Model Y sports utility vehicle at the company's showroom in Beijing, China. Reuters
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California is assessing whether Tesla's self-driving tests need regulatory oversight after "videos showing a dangerous use of that technology" and federal investigations into vehicle crashes, a state regulator said.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles said Tesla’s “full self-driving” (FSL) beta required human intervention and therefore was not subject to its regulations on autonomous vehicles.

But the department is "revisiting that decision following recent software updates, videos showing a dangerous use of that technology, open investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the opinions of other experts", it said on Friday.

Its announcement came in a letter to Lena Gonzalez, chairwoman of the state Senate transport committee.

The Los Angeles Times first reported the letter and Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

The electric car company has been expanding the introduction of what it calls the "beta" of its advanced driver assistant software, sparking safety concerns by effectively allowing untrained drivers to test how well the technology works on public roads.

Critics say Tesla was able to avoid state regulatory oversight by telling the department that its FSD features do not make its cars autonomous.

The department said it notified Tesla that it "will be initiating further review of the technology of their vehicles, including any expansion of the current programs or features".

"If the capabilities of the features meet the definition of an autonomous vehicle according to California law and regulations, DMV will take steps to make certain that Tesla operates under the appropriate autonomous vehicle permits," the agency said.

Under the regulation, Tesla would need to report crashes and traffic tickets specific to the FSD, said Phil Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.

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This would also "trigger a driver background check to ensure a good driving record," Prof Koopman said.

Currently, regulations cover companies such as Alphabet and General Motors, which are testing autonomous vehicle technology on public roads in California.

The FSD allows vehicles to perform some driving tasks, such as lane changes, but Tesla says the features "require a fully attentive driver".

Tesla markets the technology as "full self-driving" and charges up to $10,000 for the software.

The department also said its review of Tesla’s use of the term “full self-driving” is continuing.

"The DMV shares the concern held by many other safety stakeholders about the potential for driver inattention, misunderstanding, or misuse as these systems become more prevalent," it said.

Updated: January 13, 2022, 3:00 AM