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California DMV to review Tesla’s ‘Full Self-Driving’ and other technology to determine software’s future use

A DMV spokeswoman said the department had notified Tesla of the review, which is separate from an evaluation of its use of the term

Tesla electric vehicles outside one of the automaker's dealerships in Shanghai. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)
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SAN FRANCISCO — California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has opened a new review into Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” and other driver-assistance software as it seeks to determine whether it should consider the features “autonomous,” a spokeswoman said Tuesday night.

The review could carry major implications for the company headed by Elon Musk, which has deployed beta software by that name to more than 12,000 vehicles on public roads without trained test drivers. Currently, the company deploys over-the-air updates with the software to drivers who have been granted early access or passed a safety screening, in addition to paying up to $10,000. The company says the drivers must pay attention at all times.

If the cars are deemed autonomous by the DMV, however, they would need to be registered with the state. Manufacturers must provide annual reports on how often their vehicles disengage from autonomous mode, and test drivers must be enrolled in a driving record pull notice program.

“The DMV has notified Tesla that the department will be initiating further review of the technology on their vehicles, including any expansion of the current programs or features,” DMV spokeswoman Anita Gore said in an email. “If the capabilities of the features meet the definition of an autonomous vehicle according to California law and regulations, DMV will take steps to make certain that Tesla operates under the appropriate autonomous vehicle permits.”

“The DMV will be partnering with AV industry experts to evaluate the capabilities of Tesla’s vehicles,” she added.

Tesla test drivers believe they’re on a mission to make driving safer for everyone. Skeptics say they’re a safety hazard.

Gore said the review is separate from a probe of Tesla’s use of the term “Full Self-Driving,” which seeks to determine whether Tesla misled customers.

The Los Angeles Times first reported that the DMV was “revisiting” its approach to regulating Tesla’s use of automated features in its vehicles.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has defended its safety record and says it requires drivers to pay attention at all times while using the software.

The company’s driver-assistance features have come under the scrutiny of government regulators and safety experts as it has scaled up the ambitions of its software.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating Tesla over a dozen crashes involving parked emergency vehicles while the software suite Tesla dubs “Autopilot” was active. The top federal auto safety regulator also last year began requiring companies including Tesla to report certain crashes involving automated systems within a day of learning of such incidents.

The company’s Autopilot software is a suite of driver-assistance features that is primarily used to navigate highways, from on-ramp to off-ramp, with an attentive driver behind the wheel. The software beta Tesla dubs “Full Self-Driving” expands those capabilities to city and residential streets, enabling the vehicle to make everyday driving maneuvers.

The DMV action in the company’s biggest U.S. market could severely limit Tesla’s ability to deploy and train its driver-assistance software, which it intends to one day make autonomous. Musk said in 2019 that Tesla’s autonomous ambitions would propel the company to 1 million “robotaxis” by 2020, in the form of Tesla vehicles that could operate on their own.

Musk, who said he relocated to Texas in 2020, tweeted an unrelated criticism of California’s government on Tuesday night.