We are told by vehicle manufacturers to expect fully autonomous vehicles no sooner than 2025. To be fair, there is a lot to sort out before they can be introduced: governments need to debate legislation surrounding such vehicles, insurance companies need to decide who pays out in a crash not involving a driver, not to mention ensuring the validity of the technology. Meanwhile, last year Tesla launched a semi-autonomous vehicle, via an online download. Did Tesla jump the gun or is it simply ahead of the competition?
Tesla’s PR statement about software update 7.0, which enables Autopilot, says the “Model S is designed to keep getting better over time” and that the update is in the Beta phase so it is recommended drivers do not drive hands-free. Although some Youtube videos have not only shown the car being driven hands free, but some with the ‘driver’ in the back seat. Not long after 7.0 was launched the company offered 7.1 to try and prevent such actions by these YouTube heroes.

There are some videos however, that show the drivers acting responsibly and per Tesla’s instructions yet near misses have occurred. So how has Tesla managed to introduce such a system that clearly is not quite ready yet?

I think part of it is because of the Tesla brand and the type of people who would own such vehicles. Tesla is at the forefront of desirable electric vehicles, a product which is, relatively speaking, still in its infancy. These people who own such vehicles are, in marketing terms, innovators i.e. adopt new technologies before they are widely proven. These people will accept it is still an immature technology and are willing to endure the pains of development to be one of the first people with it.

The other part is legislation. Speaking for the UK, there is no explicit legislation which governs autonomous vehicles on UK roads. UK traffic regulations are based on the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic (1968) which requires the driver to be in control of his or her vehicle at all times. This essentially outlaws fully autonomous vehicles from UK roads. The Autopilot update, however, technically falls under the ‘Partial Autonomy’ bracket which is legal.

It is very clever really. Tesla needs to develop its autonomous systems, so makes a Beta version available to its customers who will continually stream data back to the company to help them develop it. The company is protected through disclaimers and it is at a level of autonomy that is legal on public roads. It’s a win-win.