Tesla drives on Autopilot through regulatory gray zone

Adding to the regulatory confusion is that traditionally NHTSA regulates vehicle safety while departments of motor vehicles in individual states oversee drivers.

When it comes to semi-autonomous functions, it may not be apparent whether the onboard computer or the driver is controlling the car, or if the supervision is shared, says the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

California has introduced AV regulations but they only apply to cars equipped with technology that can perform the dynamic driving task without the active physical control or monitoring of a human operator, the state’s DMV told Reuters.

It said Tesla’s full self-driving system does not yet meet those standards and is considered a type of Advance Driver Assistance System that it does not regulate.
That leaves Tesla’s Autopilot and its FSD system operating in regulatory limbo in California as the automaker rolls out new versions of the systems for its customers to test.

NHTSA said this week it has opened 28 investigations into crashes of Tesla vehicles, 24 of which remain active, and at least four, including the fatal Texas accident, have occurred since March.

NHTSA has repeatedly argued that its broad authority to demand automakers recall any vehicle that poses an unreasonable safety risk is sufficient to address driver assistance systems.

So far, NHTSA has not taken any enforcement action against Tesla’s advanced driving systems.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said NHTSA is “actively engaged with Tesla and local law enforcement” on the Texas crash.

The NTSB, a U.S. government agency charged with investigating road accidents, has criticized NHTSA’s hands-off approach to regulating cars with self-driving features and AVs.

“NHTSA refuses to take action for vehicles termed as having partial, or lower level, automation, and continues to wait for higher levels of automation before requiring that AV systems meet minimum national standards,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to NHTSA.

“Because NHTSA has put in place no requirements, manufacturers can operate and test vehicles virtually anywhere, even if the location exceeds the AV control system’s limitations,” the letter said.

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