UK drivers left idling as Tesla rolls out Autopilot in US

At last - Americans finally get to parallel park

Updated Tesla has offered to make its customers more confident drivers by allowing them to hand over control of their vehicles to software.

The manufacturer started pushing its Autopilot technology to its Model S motors with its Tesla Version 7.0 software yesterday - in the US anyway. Autopilot will take advantage of tech built into the Model S such as a forward radar, long-range camera, a bank of long-range sensors and a digitally controlled braking system.

Tesla reckons this will allow the Model S to “steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control.”

If that sounds terrifying, don’t worry, because the infant auto vendor promises that this “digital control” will “help” avoid front and side collisions, and prevent the car wandering off the road. We’re not totally clear how the car intends to deal with being rear-ended, although we presume there is a rear view mirror option.

It will also mean the car can scan for a parking space and “parallel park on command” - as we said, the technology is primarily aimed at the American market for now.

According to Wired, Elon Musk told a press event launching the technology, “We explicitly describe this as a beta.” Meanwhile, the Beeb reported Musk saying that handing over to autopilot would increase driver confidence on the road. Just as sitting in an exit row increases your confidence as an airline pilot.

Many drivers may be leery of handing control of a couple of tons of metal to a beta program – as we suspect will regulators and equally importantly insurance firms. Tesla appears to be rather pointedly reminding its drivers/pilots/customers to keep their hands on the wheel. Presumably this is to head off too much interest from regulators.

“We tell drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case, to exercise caution in the beginning. Over time, long term, you won’t have to keep your hands on the wheel,” Musk said yesterday.

In a blog posting, the firm said: “The driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car. What's more, you always have intuitive access to the information your car is using to inform its actions.”

That long term may be a mite longer still in Europe. Tesla said the update will reach owners in Europe and Asia next week, and that it is just straightening things out with regulators “on final details currently”. There is no comment on how conversations with insurers are progressing.

If Tesla does get the green light in a matter of weeks this would appear a rapid acceleration of the UK’s driverless motoring roadmap.

The UK, which is pitching itself as a leader in the development of driverless technology, is only just about to launch its first widespread trials of driverless technology after concluding there are no explicit barriers to “testing” the technology.

Professor Nick Reed, Academy Director at the UK's Transport Research Laboratory told El Reg: “My understanding is that it would be legal for a driver to use Tesla‘s Autopilot mode in the UK, as it’s an advanced version of existing driver assistance systems like adaptive cruise control and lane guidance systems. It also adds the capability to perform lane change manoeuvres."

He added, We know that drivers can be tempted to use smartphones whilst driving and that fatigue is a factor in as many as 20 per cent of collisions. So while the technology should simplify the driving task and operate the vehicle safely, it is possible that new collision types related to distraction and inattention may occur."

According to a review back in February, clarification of liabilities is some way off, and the government aimed to “liaise at an international level with an aim of amend international regulations by the end of 2018.” Perhaps the relevant civil servants will be driven there automatically. ®

Professor Nick Reed is one of our Christmas lecturers. For more details, including tickets, go here.

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