LA Times: Bill targeting Tesla’s ‘self-driving’ claims passes California Legislature

August 31, 2022


Since 2016, Tesla has been marketing an expensive option called Full Self-Driving. A reasonable person might infer from the name that the software package enables a car to drive itself, fully.

It does not. No car available for consumers to buy is capable of full self-driving. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has rules on its books that ban the advertisement of cars as “self-driving” when they are not. But it has never enforced those rules.

So, impatient with the DMV, the state Legislature is stepping in, going over the DMV’s head and making its false advertising regulation a state law.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), was passed by the Senate on Tuesday night and now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature. Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

False advertising of self-driving technology is a serious safety issue, Gonzalez said. At least several deaths have been linked to Tesla’s Autopilot, the cheaper, more basic version of Full Self-Driving.

In an interview with The Times, Gonzalez said she and fellow legislators are puzzled at the DMV’s slow response to Tesla’s advertising claims.

“Are we just going to wait for another person to be killed in California?” she said.

The DMV had no comment on the bill, and Steve Gordon, who runs the department, has declined to speak with The Times or any other member of the media on the subject since he took office in 2019.

The number of crashes, injuries and deaths that might involve Full Self-Driving is unknown. The nation’s decades-old crash reporting system, fractured among cities and states, is ill-equipped to determine facts that are increasingly central in the age of software-controlled highway vehicles.

A modern car such as a Tesla bristles with tiny computers that collect and process vast amounts of data that can be communicated to the manufacturer over cellular and Wi-Fi connections. Tesla has resisted releasing such data to regulators or safety researchers.

Regulators are beginning to apply more pressure. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is conducting several investigations into the company’s safety record, including a string of Tesla cars plowing into emergency vehicles parked at the side of the road.

Recently, NHTSA ordered Tesla to provide it with detailed data on crashes that might involve its automated driving systems.

It’s unclear how effective the new legislation will be. The responsibility for enforcing the law will remain with the DMV.

California “already prohibits misleading marketing” of automated vehicles, said Bryant Walker Smith, professor of law at the University of South Carolina. “Passing this bill, however, would certainly provide pretty solid evidence of legislative intent in a way that could be meaningful to a state administrative agency or a state judge,” he said.

In fact, as it became clear that the Gonzalez bill would pass, the DMV on July 22 filed an administrative action against Tesla on the false advertising issue. The DMV had been conducting what it called a “review” of the false advertising issue since May 2021.

Read the full article online here.