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

You'll hit the turn indicator to prime the car for lane-changing, and thereby accept the legal responsibility for doing so

1 min read
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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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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