Tesla's Robocar To Driver: Accept the Liability, Buster

Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Tesla Motors has a new way of keeping drivers involved in the decision-making process for an otherwise self-driving car: To trigger an automatic lane-changing function, the driver would have to hit the turn signal.

The company says that the lane-changing function will eventually be made available via a software update, the Wall Street Journal reports. The car is already fitted with the necessary sensors and computing hardware.

You may well wonder whether adding this encumbrance renders the lane-changing function barely worthwhile. The real question is: worthwhile to whom? And the answer is: to Tesla. It wants to saddle the driver with the legal liability; it also wants its car to pass muster with regulators.

Pro-forma pettifoggery is hardly new to the digital world. How many people actually scroll down and read the boilerplate in the disclaimer that opens up when they update software—before going to the end to punch the “I Agree” button?

Tricks to involve the human driver are already happening. Take the first semi-autonomous car, the 2014 Mercedes S class. If the driver takes his hands off the steering wheel for more than 10 seconds or so, the car will first chide him, then make him pull over to the side of the road, just as parents are always threatening to do when their kids misbehave.

The technology for getting a car to pass another on the highway is already available. In early 2014, I rode in a Mercedes fitted with an experimental system programmed to pass any vehicle going below a certain speed if the car deemed the move safe. It worked like a charm.

But the Mercedes engineer had to sit behind the wheel—I couldn’t. “Legal reasons,” he explained.

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