Officials with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles wanted to have regulations that are more complete in place for autonomous vehicles already, but say the delay is justified.
The department said it’s still working to finalize the updated directive on autonomous technology. Many complex issues are under consideration for the final draft, which will likely set guidelines for several levels of self-driving cars.
“We’re very excited about the technology,” DMV representative Jessica Gonzalez said. “We’re happy that a lot of things are happening in California and we don’t want to lose that. We just have to be careful because we want to get it right.”
Under California’s current regulations, passenger vehicles with Level 2 automation are legal. These types of cars can use several self-driving features at the same time, such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering. At the moment Level 3 and Level 4 vehicles are only allowed for testing by manufacturers and require a special permit.
The main difference between the categories, explained Gonzalez, is that Level 2 technology is “just helping drivers make better decisions.” In vehicles with Level 3 and Level 4 technologies, she said “the car is making the decisions.”
The self-driving features unlocked in the 7.0 software update from Tesla are all examples of Level 2 technology. When autosteer is engaged, a Model S can steer itself, maintain the correct speed and change lanes.
Tesla states that even in this mode drivers must “remain engaged and aware.” Vehicle sensors require the driver to touch the steering wheel every 10 seconds; in absence of this, the Model S will first warn the driver, and then can actually slow down and stop if the driver still doesn’t take hold of the wheel.
Before this software update was issued, the DMV met with officials at Tesla to assess the new autosteer.
“We were very comfortable with what they’re doing,” said Gonzalez. “We didn’t tell them to do the 10-second thing, but that’s why they did the 10-second thing. They also are saying the driver needs to be in control. They’re not ready to say, ‘Hey, let’s sit back and relax.’ ”
However, some drivers may not be clear on the technology’s limited capabilities. This has been seen in several new videos of drivers testing autosteer on the Model S. In the video below, the driver was allowing his Model S to exit a highway and follow faded street markings, two scenarios Tesla cautions against for using autosteer.
“No one’s making you read the manual to know how it works,” said Brooks Weisblat of DragTimes. He adds, “The technology is ready. I’m not sure the people are ready.”
When testing out a self-driving Model S in Florida earlier this month, Weisblat received a warning notice from the Florida Highway Patrol for driving 15 mph over the speed limit. The Model S didn’t adjust its speed when the speed limit changed.
In many situations, though, experts say autonomous technologies will help drivers avoid potential problems and accidents.
“Humans are really bad at evaluating low-probability events,” said Steven Waslander, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “You’ve been driving the same way to and from work every month and then there’s one moment when suddenly you have to be paying attention.”
Establishing rules on how and when self-driving cars are allowed is something many areas are presently working on. If California publishes its autonomous technology rules first, the state will likely set the benchmark, with other regions modeling their own regulations after the Golden State.