California seeks to ban term 'autopilot' for semi-driverless vehicles

California seeks to ban term 'autopilot' for semi-driverless vehicles
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California regulators are proposing a ban on the use of the word “autopilot” for some systems following controversy over Tesla’s semi-autonomous feature by that name.

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The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issued draft regulations that would prohibit automated systems where a human driver is still responsible for monitoring the vehicle from being advertised as autonomous or self-driving, which would also apply to using similar terms like “autopilot.”

Tesla has come under fire after a fatal crash this summer involving its autopilot feature, which still requires a driver to be behind the wheel but allows a car to change lanes, brake, steer, accelerate, decelerate and avoid obstacles on its own.

Although the automaker makes clear to drivers that the new technology is still in a public beta-testing phase, Tesla has been facing criticism for whether the feature lulls drivers into a false sense of security and whether the company rolled out the technology too quickly.

"Tesla is reviewing the draft regulations and will provide input to the DMV as appropriate," a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement. "Autopilot makes driving safer and less stressful, and we have always been clear that it does not make a car autonomous any more than its namesake makes an aircraft autonomous."

Tesla recently unveiled an upgrade to its autopilot software. The changes include a shift to radar sensors instead of cameras and a new warning system to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel.

But the California proposal underscores the mounting safety concerns as vehicles make the shift toward full autonomy, setting up a potential battle between state regulators and Silicon Valley.

The Department of Transportation sought to clarify the state and federal roles in its first-ever federal guidance for driverless cars, as well as to strike a balance between innovation and safety.

The framework recommends that states be responsible licensing human drivers, enacting and enforcing traffic laws and regulating motor insurance and liability. It envisions the federal government as having primary control over the actual automation software and setting safety standards.

California also issued draft regulations last year to require a licensed driver to be present in a driverless car, along with requiring a steering wheel and pedals in the automobiles.

But officials hope that the federal guidelines may prompt states like California to reconsider their proposals.

“California has yet to fully act,” said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Mark Rosekind during a press conference last month. “So there's an opportunity, not just for California but all states to coordinate to try and get that uniform consistent framework for the country.”