US Regulators Single Out Tesla, and Tesla Testing New Auto-Driving Features

22-03-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, US regulators have been singling out Tesla when requesting tighter rules on autonomous driving systems. What levels of autonomous driving are there, what challenges does Tesla face, and why are they being singled out over autonomous driving?

What are the various levels of autonomous driving?

Not everyone agrees on what exactly classifies as a self-driving vehicle. Some may say that a car is self-driving if it can properly navigate roads and obstacles, while others would say that a self-driving car would drive in any terrain anywhere on the planet. Self-driving systems have been categorised into different levels so that various forms of self-driving can be properly identified and distinguished.

Level 0 is no automation at all with at most cruise control. While cruise control is a form of self-driving, it merely sets the vehicle's speed and does not take into account the environment or obstacles in the way. The driver requires full attention on the road.

Level 1 is the introduction of technologies that allow the car to be aware of its surroundings and make primitive decisions (i.e. driver assistance). Such actions include lane assist which gently steers the car into its lane and uses tracking technologies to maintain the same distance between itself and the vehicle in front. However, the driver is still required to be in control of the vehicle. 

Level 2 is where a vehicle begins to show signs of being truly self-driving. The vehicle can steer around corners by itself, maintain speed while being aware of nearby cars and obstacles, and perform emergency manoeuvrers such as breaking. This is the highest current level of self-driving found in any car to date including Tesla. 

Level 3 marks the point when a car can drive without hands being on the wheel. While the driver is still required to pay attention to the road and be ready to take over, the vehicle can drive themselves under ideal conditions (i.e. dry, warm sunny day with good visibility and little traffic).

Level 4 is the point where a car can be considered self-driving. Such vehicles can navigate around any road they encounter, and only require the driver to enter their destination. The only time a driver is required is when the vehicle is off-road and no longer on a designated path.

Level 5 is the holy grail of full self-driving. A user merely needs to enter a GPS location. The vehicle will decide the best route, drive on any road or off-road terrain, and expects the occupant (not driver), to sip champaign as the vehicle drives along. 

Tesla Pushing Autonomous Driving but Pushback from Regulators

While many auto-makers are working on self-driving vehicles, Tesla is one of the more popular brands in this field. Many of their vehicles already come with level 2 autonomous driving and can drive the vehicles themselves effectively. 

While level 3 is still yet to be achieved in a production vehicle, Tesla is pushing hard to obtain this goal as it would allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel reliably. To roll out level 3 autonomous systems, they need to be tested both in controlled conditions and the real-world.

However, the US National Transportation Safety Board is pressuring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to tighten the restrictions regarding autonomous vehicle testing and use. Furthermore, even with defined “Levels”, it is believed that customers of Tesla and other auto-makers do not understand the differences between Level 1 and Level 2. As such, users may make poor decisions when using “self-driving” systems under the assumption that “self-driving” means “the vehicle will drive itself entirely” instead of “the vehicle will steer and accelerate but you need your hands on the wheel”.

Why is Tesla being singled out?

The calls for such regulations result from Tesla asking its customers to test out its latest features on public roads, which carries a major risk to the drivers and those around them. The use of drivers to test updates also potentially shifts responsibility to customers instead of the company and lacks oversight and reporting that would otherwise be found in testing facilities.

It cannot be argued that Tesla has a stigma with regards to its users. One incident involved a driver being killed after the vehicle failed to detect a truck alongside it. New reports show that Tesla is banning some of its customers from using their vehicles irresponsibly during testing of beta software.

Elon Musk’s character also comes into question, and how his decisions may affect drivers. For instance, Elon is known for making extremely bold claims that rarely come true including claims on hyperloop, solar roofs, and people on Mars. In fact, Elon Musk last year claimed that Tesla would have Level 5 vehicles by the end of 2021, and despite the end of 2021 being 6 months away, Tesla is yet to achieve Level 3. The lack of reasonable judgment brings into question the release of self-driving software. It begs the question if customer testing results from Elon Musk trying to achieve his goal early while disregarding passenger safety. 

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.