California takes AI marketing off Autopilot


California issued new draft regulations this week regarding the marketing of autonomous vehicles.  It included a not-very-subtle dig at Tesla’s much-ballyhooed “Autopilot” system.

As background, the new California regulations specify in greater detail than before what type of technology counts as “autonomous” in the context of cars. Specifically, it says that an “autonomous vehicle” must qualify as Level 3, Level 4, or Level 5 under the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) framework.  That framework classifies vehicles along a 0 to 5 scale, with 5 being fully autonomous and 0 being a standard, fully human-controlled car.

The kicker came in the very last section of the draft regulations:

§ 227.90(a) No vehicle shall be advertised as an autonomous vehicle unless it [is Level 3, Level 4, or Level 5].


(b) Terms such as “self-driving”, “automated”, “auto-pilot”, or other statements made that are likely to induce a reasonably prudent person to believe a vehicle is autonomous, as defined, constitute an advertisement that the vehicle is autonomous for the purposes of this section and Vehicle Code section 11713.

Under this draft regulation, the problem with Tesla’s Autopilot technology will be that while it is several leaps ahead of everything else in the consumer market right now, it does not make a vehicle truly autonomous.  Rather, Autopilot is a limits-pushing example of what SAE classified as “Level 2” automation, which still depends on the human driver to actively monitor the vehicle’s surroundings.  To be Level 3, the vehicle must be capable of monitoring its surrounding on its own, and the human driver need only be ready to take the wheel if the vehicle’s computer specifically alerts the driver to do so.

Presumably, the concern that drove this new regulation is that an ordinary Jane or Joe might hear terms like “Autopilot” and think that the vehicle is truly autonomous.  After all, the autopilots on modern airliners are generally at least Level 3 (although thankfully, regulations require pilots to treat their planes like they are at most Level 2).*  So the average person might reasonably assume that a car with a system called “Autopilot” does not require a driver to be paying full attention to what’s going on outside the car.

Now, whether that assumption was reasonable in the case of Tesla’s Autopilot is a separate question.  Tesla is going to argue that they told drivers every which way that they still needed to pay attention–and, indeed, have their hands actually on the steering wheel–even if Autopilot is active.  California, however, has decided that that’s not enough, and that the name “Autopilot” just carries too strong a suggestion for it to be used unless the vehicle is really capable of operating autonomously.

I’d say “I called it,” but really every lawyer called it this spring, when news broke about the death of a Tesla driver who was using Autopilot as, well, an autopilot.  The lesson is that with emerging technologies in safety-critical areas such as transportation, it’s wise to have a lawyer in the room when you’re developing a branding and marketing strategy.

There’s certainly plenty more to talk about on the autonomous vehicle front that I haven’t covered over the past few weeks–perhaps most notably, the NHTSA guidelines released last month on autonomous vehicles.  Stay tuned, as the pace will be picking up around here as autumn kicks into full gear.

* Side note: A great article in the Washington Post earlier this year discussed how the increasing capabilities of airline autopilots might be dulling the piloting skills of human pilots–which is a real problem when planes encounter crises the automated systems are not designed to handle.  I suspect the same thing will happen to drivers on the ground as vehicles become more automated, reducing the frequency with which human drivers need to use and hone their driving skills.

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