California legislatures take aim at Tesla self-driving claim

Since 2016, Tesla has been marketing an expensive option called Full Self-Driving. A reasonable person could deduce from the name that the software package enables a car to be fully self-driving.

It doesn’t. No car that consumers can buy is capable of fully autonomous driving. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has regulations on its books that prohibit advertising cars as “self-driving” when they aren’t. But it never enforced those rules.

Impatient with the DMV, the state legislature steps in, going over the DMV’s head and making its ordinance on false advertising state law.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), passed the Senate Tuesday night and now goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom for signature. Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mispromotion of self-driving technology is a serious safety issue, Gonzalez said. At least several deaths have been linked to Tesla’s Autopilot, the cheaper, more basic version of full self-driving.

In an interview with The Times, Gonzalez said she and other lawmakers were puzzled by the DMV’s slow response to Tesla’s endorsements.

“Are we just going to wait for another person to get killed in California?” she said.

The DMV did not comment on the bill, and Steve Gordon, who heads the department, has declined to speak to the Times or any media representative on the issue since taking office in 2019.

The number of accidents, injuries and fatalities potentially associated with fully autonomous driving is unknown. The country’s decades-old accident reporting system, fragmented between cities and states, is ill-equipped to uncover facts that are increasingly important in the age of software-controlled highway vehicles.

A modern car like a Tesla is full of tiny computers that collect and process vast amounts of data that can be transmitted to the manufacturer via cellular and Wi-Fi connections. Tesla has refused to share such data with regulators or security researchers.

The regulators are starting to apply more pressure. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is conducting several investigations into the company’s safety record, including a number of Tesla cars plowing into emergency vehicles parked on the side of the road.

Recently, the NHTSA ordered Tesla to provide it with detailed data on accidents that its automated driving systems could be involved in.

It’s unclear how effective the new law will be. Responsibility for enforcement remains with the DMV.

California “already prohibits misleading marketing” of automated vehicles, said Bryant Walker Smith, law professor at the University of South Carolina. “However, passage of this bill would certainly provide fairly solid evidence of the intent of the legislature that might matter to a state administrative agency or state judge,” he said.

When it became clear that the Gonzalez Act would be passed, on July 22, the DMV filed an administrative lawsuit against Tesla over the false advertising issue. The DMV has been conducting a so-called “review” of the false advertising problem since May 2021.

In its July filing, the DMV noted that it has the power to strip Tesla of the ability to sell or manufacture cars in California if a violation is found. In comments to reporters, the DMV indicated that any sentences resulting from the trial – which is likely to last at least several months – would be far more lenient.

The DMV told The Times in early August that the agency “will request that Tesla be required to advertise to consumers and better educate Tesla drivers about the capabilities of its ‘Autopilot’ and ‘Full Self-Driving’ features, including warnings regarding the limitations of the functions and for other measures that are appropriate given the violations.”

This could affect the company’s use of the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving names, but the DMV would not discuss that possibility.

“People in California think full self-driving is fully automated, when it’s not,” Gonzalez said.

The new bill doesn’t address the security of the technology itself, limiting its scope to how it’s advertised. In the fine print on its website and in manuals, Tesla explains that a human driver must have their full attention, whether using Tesla’s Autopilot with adaptive cruise control and automatic lane changes, or Full Self-Driving “Beta,” which is designed to Obey traffic signals when navigating a programmed route. YouTube is filled with videos demonstrating the work-in-progress nature of fully self-driving with dangerous maneuvers and traffic violations.

Other automakers sell similar technology but don’t imply a car can drive itself, Gonzalez said. “No one else does, only Tesla,” she said. “GM, Ford, BMW, Mercedes, they’re all doing the right thing” by demonstrating the limits of automated technology.

In addition to banning misleading advertising, the bill also places new requirements on automakers to clearly explain the capabilities and limitations of semi-automation technology when delivering a new car and updating software.

A 2018 survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 40% of car owners who bought driver-assistance options like Autopilot assumed the car could drive itself. “Requesting dealerships to explain the restrictions will help fill this knowledge gap,” said Amanda Gualderama, government department director for the Automobile Club of Southern California, who supported the bill.

Gonzalez said she has worked with several auto companies and the American Automobile Assn. to the billing language. The committee met “heavy lobbying” against Tesla’s bill, she said, arguing that false advertising is already outlawed by the DMV rules.

But the promotion has continued for six years, on the company’s website, on social media and in public presentations by Chief Executive Elon Musk, who recently tweeted that Tesla was increasing the price of its $12,000 Full Self-Driving option will increase to $15,000 on Monday.

Tesla could not be reached for comment. California legislatures take aim at Tesla self-driving claim

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