Tesla's new driverless feature sparks confusion, could negate insurance coverage
VANCOUVER - Startled witnesses who recorded a Tesla rolling through a Richmond parking lot this week without anyone at the wheel were concerned it had “gone rogue.”
But the owner had actually activated a new and controversial self-driving feature – one that officials say is illegal, and could negate insurance coverage.
A reader of the Richmond News sent the local newspaper video of the unoccupied electric Tesla Model 3 slowly driving through a parking lot at Richmond Centre on Monday before stopping for a man who appeared to be waiting for it in the parkade.
It's a feature called "Smart Summon" that Tesla quietly rolled out in Canada last month. Activated via a smartphone app, the company’s website describes it so: “With Smart Summon, your car will navigate more complex environments and parking spaces, maneuvering around objects as necessary to come find you in a parking lot.”
The feature has been the subject of numerous videos on social media and YouTube in the past month, with users testing its accuracy in detecting hazards, with close calls and minor fender-benders documented alongside other examples of remarkable navigational ability.
The Ministry of Transportation says not only do B.C. laws "not permit driverless vehicles on our roads,” the vehicles are also illegal for import. The Teslas were already in the country when the feature was enabled last month, however. The ministry says it's formed a work group to deal with autonomous vehicles and that it’s up to police jurisdictions to enforce the law.
Meanwhile, ICBC says parking lots are the same as roadways under the law, making the Smart Summon feature illegal there as well, noting: “In the recent incident in Richmond, thankfully there was no accident. Had an accident occurred, the vehicle owner’s insurance may not have provided coverage.”
CTV News asked Tesla for an interview and for details about what kind of work they’ve done with Canadian officials to ensure the autonomous feature is legal on our roadways but the company has not responded.
Though the vehicle didn’t come close to any curbs, people or other vehicles, it was driving over the solid centre line on the way to its owner.
“We’re going to have to change our laws,” said personal injury lawyer Renn Holness.
He says at the moment, manufacturers are not responsible for any crashes, injuries or damages, but if the vehicle’s creator is controlling its movement, the law should change to reflect that. Holness also points out that Tesla needs a huge amount of testing to update and establish the software as safe, and that can only come with a lot of practice.
“They knew that in order to have this technology properly tested it would have to be tested on a very large scale and in order to do that they would have to have gotten some type of approval from the government -- that was never sought and never received,” said Holness. “So this is almost like a sleeper software that not become apparent until now and Tesla's benefitting from it because they're getting all the test results."
He suggests that until legislation is updated with clear guidelines for insurance coverage, Tesla drivers should err on the side of caution.
"My advice is disable the feature and only use the feature if you're on your own private property,” said Holness.
“If you're anywhere where there's an expectation of the public could be present, you're endangering the public and potentially you may, as an owner, be responsible."