The German Transport Minister has asked Tesla to stop using the term “Autopilot” for its cars’ autopilot system, on the grounds that it may mislead drivers into thinking that the car can drive itself. According to Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper, minister Alexander Dobrindt sent a letter to Tesla asking it to stop advertising the feature under its current name.
“In order to prevent misunderstandings and false customer expectations, we demand that we no longer use the misleading concept of autopilot in the application of the system,” said the letter (translated from German).
Tesla’s Autopilot is an designed as assistant, not a driver, and when you activate it, the car will display a message to tell you that Autopilot is “an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times.” In response, a Tesla spokesperson said that the term “autopilot” has been “used in aerospace for decades” without confusion. What she didn’t say is that airplane pilots are trained professionals, and that–because a plane doesn’t run on a busy road–the pilot doesn’t need to look ahead the way a car driver does.
Germany isn’t against self-driving cars. On the contrary, it is already rewriting its traffic laws to include them, and has invited to auto industry to draw up a wish-list for future legislation. The idea will be to let the human driver cede legal responsibility to the car.
With this in mind, Tesla’s Autopilot does indeed present a gray area. When a Tesla crashed back in May, killing its human occupant, the Autopilot was engaged, and failed to detect a truck that pulled out in from of it. In theory, driver Joshua Brown should have had his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road ahead, but it is possible that Brown considered the Autopilot to be safe enough to drive the car by itself.
And that’s Germany’s point. No matter how many warnings you give people, or how familiar they are with the intricacies of airplane autopilots, they’ll assume that Tesla’s Autopilot can drive itself. It’s a small and tricky point, but it’s also exactly the kind of nuance that the law specializes in, and law is going to be very important when it comes to autonomous vehicles.