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California Pushes Tesla to Drop 'Autopilot' Name

The state DMV released a set of guidelines for autonomous vehicles, but suggested that auto makers should refrain from using the terms “self-driving,” “automated” or “auto-pilot” in advertising their vehicles.

(TNS) -- California regulators, it turns out, take a dim view of Tesla Motors’ Autopilot — not the self-steering system itself, but the name.

In draft regulations released late Friday, the state Department of Motor Vehicles said car companies should not use the terms “self-driving,” “automated” or “auto-pilot” in advertising unless their cars are capable of driving themselves without human passengers paying attention.

For Palo Alto’s Tesla, that could pose a problem.

The company’s Autopilot system, available in both the Model S electric sedan and Model X SUV, can steer on its own and change lanes. But the human driver is supposed to remain ready to take the wheel whenever needed.

The fatal crash in May of a Tesla driver who appeared to be watching a Harry Potter video while Autopilot drove his car made the need for that requirement clear.

Due to its need for human supervision, Tesla’s Autopilot rates as a level-two version of self-driving technology, based on a scale used by the government and the auto industry. The California draft regulations say only cars rating level three, four or five can be advertised as self-driving or capable of functioning on “auto-pilot.”

Level-three cars can drive themselves under certain conditions without human occupants paying attention, while level-five cars are fully automated, driving themselves under all conditions.

“Tesla is reviewing the draft regulations and will provide input to the DMV as appropriate,” a Tesla spokewoman replied, in an emailed statement. “Autopilot makes driving safer and less stressful, and we have always been clear that it does not make a car autonomous any more than its namesake makes an aircraft autonomous.”

Tesla has come under pressure before to change the Autopilot name. Consumer Reports in July argued that the company should stop using that name, saying it could lull drivers in a false sense of safety.

“It’s really a driver-assist technology, and it was being advertised as Autopilot — that was outrageous,” said John Simpson with Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit group that has been critical of Tesla’s Autopilot deployment. “The advertising regs are exactly what’s required.”

Tesla last month updated Autopilot to rely more on its cars’ built-in radar, and CEO Elon Musk claims the system is already safer than human drivers.

Tesla is not the only automaker to face such pressure. Mercedes-Benz in July yanked a television ad for its 2017 E-Class sedan that asked, “Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” The car features automated steering and parking, but drivers are still required to pay attention.

The draft regulations issued Friday contain some elements likely to please automakers testing autonomous vehicles in California, while other proposals address concerns raised by consumer advocates.

In a break from previous drafts, the new proposal would allow companies to test on public roads highly autonomous cars that don’t have a human in the driver’s seat.

However, those cars would need to be in constant contact with a remote operator monitoring the tests. And any company performing such tests would first have to secure the permission of the city or community where those tests would take place.

The cars being tested would need to comply with a set of 15 federal guidelines issued last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The draft California regulations also spell out the conditions under which automakers could begin selling fully autonomous cars in the state, should they pass their tests.

In a nod to privacy advocates, automakers would need the written permission of car buyers before using any of the information generated by their self-driving cars, unless that information was either rendered anonymous or was used for the safe operation of the vehicles.

“We know a driverless vehicle is going to be able to gather a tremendous amount of data,” Simpson said. “So the question then is, ‘What is that information going to be be used for?’”

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.