Tesla, the most famous brand for electric vehicles, has been banned by a German court from using the word ‘autopilot’ to describe its self-driving capabilities. This was a case brought in Munich by Germany’s Wettbewerbszentrale, the agency charged with policing anti-competitive practices, which has also prohibited Tesla Germany from including the phrase “full potential for autonomous driving” in its advertising.
The verdict was motivated more by the legal reality that full autonomous driving is not allowed on Germany’s public roads than with the actual capabilities. In fact Tesla could parade figures indicating that driving with its autopilot feature enabled is much safer than without.
Admittedly, data relating to autonomous driving has to come with the caveat that the number of miles is astronomically small compared with those involving conventional vehicles, so may be statistically suspect. But so far Tesla has registered one accident or ‘crash-like’ event for every 3.34m miles driven with autopilot engaged, and one for every 1.92m miles driven with the older, less comprehensive automated safety features. This compares with about one crash per 200,000 miles without any autonomous assistance.
This tentatively indicates that autonomous assistance does make driving safer and that Tesla’s autopilot has taken that a step further. But so far we have to assume that most of those miles driven have been with a human driver at the wheel still in charge benefiting from the autonomous assistance, such as automated breaking in the event of an emergency. This would be bound to reduce crashes, but it remains to be proven beyond all doubt that such improvements would still hold in the absence of human presence at the wheel, under full autonomous operation.
The real significance, then, of that German verdict is that it highlights the major challenge facing advocates of autonomous driving, which is the transition from assisted mode to full automation.
This process is enshrined in the multiple levels defined for autonomy, where Level 2 involves some assistance to humans at the wheel, Level 3 allows handover to the self-driving system but with the driver still at the wheel and able to take over immediately. Level 4 then allows full autonomy so that the driver can switch off under most circumstances, while Level 5 is the full deal when the vehicle could be completely redesigned without having controls such as steering wheels, brakes or accelerator pedals at all.
The tricky part is negotiating Level 3, in which humans by their nature are bound to let their concentration slip and not be ready to resume control almost instantly if an exception situation arose that the autonomous system could not deal with. For that reason, some manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, want to jump straight from Level 2 to Level 4 to avoid that ambiguous intermediate phase.
But the problem is that would require many miles of testing under more limited conditions to convince regulators that the systems were ready for Level 4. The safety bar will be set much higher because regulators and the public will have virtually zero tolerance for accidents resulting from system as opposed to human error. That may be irrational but is the reality, reflected in part by that German verdict.