Musk has taken advantage of a light-touch approach in the U.S. to regulating self-driving technology. Within days of Tesla releasing a software update that enabled Autopilot in October 2015, YouTubers posted videos of themselves ignoring the company’s warnings against taking their hands off the wheel. One nearly auto-steered off the road; the other almost veered into an oncoming car.
Two months before a Tesla driver in Florida died when his Model S on Autopilot plowed into an 18-wheel trailer in May 2016, NHTSA said existing laws in the country posed few barriers to driver-assistance systems. Then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said weeks after the crash that NHTSA would release guidelines, rather than rules, for the technology. Congress hasn't enacted any laws specifically addressing oversight of vehicle automation.
Musk alluded to this regulatory permissiveness in March when he was asked when Europeans will get to test Full Self-Driving, or FSD, a set of beta features available in the U.S. Contrary to the name, FSD doesn’t render Tesla cars capable of driving themselves.
“In the U.S., things are legal by default,” Musk said. “In Europe, they’re illegal by default. So we have to get approval beforehand, whereas in the U.S., you can kind of do it on your own cognizance, more or less.”
Tesla’s approach to automated-driving features contrasts with that of legacy automakers GM and Ford, whose systems use cameras behind the steering wheel to monitor whether drivers are paying attention. The companies also restrict use of the systems to highways their engineers have mapped and tested out before deploying the technology to drivers.
“Tesla sticks out like a sore thumb,” said David Friedman, who was deputy and acting administrator of NHTSA from 2013 to 2015. “And it has for years.”
NHTSA has repeatedly reminded the public — including in comments provided for this story — that no commercially available vehicle can drive itself. The agency has opened 31 special investigations into crashes involving driver-assistance systems, 24 of which involved Teslas. But the company keeps hawking FSD — and charges $12,000 for it.
There’s growing discomfort with this state of play in Washington.
“I really dislike a lot of what Tesla has done, and at the top of the list in bright, bold letters, is Elon Musk’s habit of making false public claims, and using his podium in a way that creates safety risks,” Heidi King, a deputy and acting administrator of NHTSA during the Trump administration, said in an interview.
“We all admire his visionary attributes,” King said of Musk. “But visionary exaggerations about a consumer product can be very, very dangerous.”