Weekly Brief: Tesla’s Vaulting Autonomous Ambition Needs Regulation

Elon Musk passed Warren Buffet to become the world’s seventh richest person last week.

Musk’s net worth has skyrocketed during the pandemic because Tesla has surpassed production targets despite COVID-19 challenges and has become the most valuable carmaker in America. Tesla’s stock has gained 270% in 2020 alone. It’s also been a good year for Musk’s rocket ship company, SpaceX, which in May became the first private company in US history to launch a rocket shape into outer space with NASA astronauts on board.

Love him or hate him, Musk is starting to look more and more like the 21st century’s Henry Ford – a man with a clear vision for what mobility will look like in the future and a frenetic, fanatic devotion to bringing that vision to fruition. Last week Musk attended the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, where he told the audience in a video message that Tesla “will have the basic functionality for Level 5 autonomy complete this year”.

He stopped short of saying Tesla will send out an over-the-air update enabling Level 5 autonomy in 2020 but he’s made no secret of his desire to get fully self-driving cars on the road as soon as possible, whether or not the world or his technology is ready for it. That’s why it’s nice to see countries finally taking action when it comes to regulating advanced driver assistance systems like Tesla’s Autopilot.

Two weeks ago the United Nations announced new binding rules and regulations for vehicles operating in semi-autonomous or autonomous mode. The regulations don’t concern themselves with Level 2 vehicle automation, which is what Tesla’s Autopilot is today. Instead they focus on Levels 3 to 5.

They state that vehicles with Level 3 and above advanced lane keeping systems can travel no faster than 60kph (37mph) when these systems are engaged. Furthermore, they can only be used on roads that have a physical barrier between the two directions of traffic and they must have a black box on board to record and collect data whenever Level 3 systems are activated.

More than 50 countries signed and adopted the new regulations, including EU member states and countries in Asia like Japan and South Korea. The United States did not sign the regulations (no surprise there) but US carmakers will have to comply with the rules if they want to sell in foreign markets where the rules are in place.

The UN also passed new regulations requiring carmakers to build their cars with specific cyber-security protections. South Korea plans to implement the rules this year, with Japan and other EU countries following suit in 2021. Again the US did not sign but American carmakers will have to comply with these regulations as well if they want to sell their vehicles internationally so, most likely, the net result will be compliance with the UN regulations across the US.

This is promising. We’re living in a world where automobiles are increasingly complex, from their self-driving capabilities to their in-cabin entertainment and connectivity. Last week we saw Mercedes Benz’s introduce a fancy S-class infotainment system for C Suite executives; our Paul Myles explored a new app that connects vehicles with pedestrian smartphones to keep pedestrians safe from vehicle collisions. In this environment where people and cars are evermore interconnected, it’s vital that we have clear, sensible rules in place that put a premium on safety – even if the world’s seventh richest man complains about it.

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