When Technology is Unpredictable, Can Regulators Keep Up?

I recently wrote about a renewed federal push to regulate automated vehicles. I’ve previously highlighted a range of state regulatory schemes, including California’s relatively strict set of regulations. Meanwhile, the advent of truly automated vehicles, which seemed imminent when Waymo announced its driverless shuttle service in Phoenix, now may be farther away than we expected. Waymo’s shuttle’s still have human safety drivers, and the technology has not advanced as quickly as expected to handle all the vagaries of the road.

But as Congress and the states struggle to get a regulatory handle on this new technology, a recent Tesla update raises an important question. Is the regulatory state agile enough to adapt when the automated vehicle market evolves in unexpected ways?

Last week, Tesla unveiled “Smart Summon,” a feature in some vehicles that allows the user to summon the car to their location. With a range of 200 feet, Smart Summon is primarily designed for use in parking lots. At least one video shows its successful use in a Costco parking lot, avoiding pedestrians and other vehicles to meet its owner at the storefront. However, the feature is not limited to use in parking lots, and videos have emerged of users trying out Smart Summon on public roads, and even running in front of their vehicle to try and make the car chase them. Despite the potential dangers this technology presents, no one has yet been injured or hit by a driverless Tesla being summoned.

Despite the seriousness with which California takes automated vehicle regulation, state authorities have determined that Teslas equipped with Smart Summon are not autonomous, and thus do not need to meet California’s AV standards. Based on regulatory definitions, this is probably the correct. A state DMV spokesperson said the state defines AVs as vehicles able to drive without active physical control or monitoring by a human. Smart Summon requires a user to be attentive to their smartphone. Furthermore, its inability to operate more than 200 feet from a human controller means that it would not satisfy SAE autonomous driving level four or five.

Despite not being a true AV though, it’s clear that Smart Summon presents many of the same dangers as one. It operates in unpredictable parking lots, filled with pedestrians and vehicles and shopping carts all moving around each other in unpredictable ways. It is the sort of environment that can get dicey for a human driver, with our experience and understanding of the subtle signals humans give off to make an otherwise unexpected move a little bit more predictable. And despite a small-print company warning that Smart Summon requires “active driver supervision,” the amount of supervision anyone can truly give a moving vehicle from 200 feet away is certainly questionable.

And yet, these vehicle are not AVs. Instead, they seem to fall within an increasingly muddled gray area of transportation that is something short of fully automated, but requires much less than full and active driver attention. In California’s current regulatory environment, this technology fits neatly into a gap.

A year ago, many people assumed we were rapidly approaching the rise of Level 4 automated vehicles that could operate smoothly on city streets. Regulations developed at the time are written with that sort of technology in mind. Even one year out, legislators were not thinking of how to assure the safety of something like Smart Summon.

So how should something like Smart Summon be regulated? What will autonomous—or semi-autonomous—technology look like a year from now, and how can government agencies prepare for it? Given the unpredictable nature of an early stage technology, regulators will continue struggling to answer these questions.