It’s great to see that that the Ministry of Transport has clarified that the use of autopilot in cars is legal provided that road rules in relation to the safe operation of a vehicle are complied with.
As my friends, family and work colleagues will attest, I am fascinated by and am an early adopter of technology, especially technology in cars (which makes it somewhat of an expensive hobby). I frequently use adaptive cruise control in my car, which allows me to set my cruising speed and rely on the car to automatically brake and accelerate (even when stationary) depending on what is in front on me. This is a great feature when I’m stuck in Auckland’s bumper to bumper traffic but also on the open road. All I need to do is steer and the car’s radar and video camera systems will ensure that I don’t get too close to the car ahead of me.
My wife’s car has auto parking assist, where the car detects a parking space, takes over the steering from you and parallel parks the car for you. All you need to do is tap on the accelerator and change from Drive to Reverse (and vice versa) when directed. It’s a pretty neat feature (bordering on a gimmick) but isn’t something you'd use often if you have fast moving (or waiting) traffic behind you and you just need to execute a quick parallel park.
In the above examples, it’s a very odd feeling, at first, not being in total control of your vehicle. All of these features are useful but should be treated as driver-assistance features with the driver ready to take over control immediately – in my view, a human is able to detect, sense or assess things in its surroundings better than a computer might be able to.
Given the potential for things to go wrong with any car technology (whether driver or technology faults), and car manufacturers who may wish to minimise and manage their risk, will we soon see car manufacturers requiring owners or drivers to agree to terms and conditions before driving their vehicles? This is really no different from someone agreeing to the terms of conditions of use of a website or software application. Interestingly, I found no such terms and conditions in the vehicle manuals of the cars that we own. There were instructions and warnings in the vehicle manuals but no terms and conditions requiring owners or drivers to operate the vehicle in accordance with the manual, or limitations or exclusions of liability to protect the car manufacturer … provisions you would expect to see in a software or technology licence.
But is autopilot legal in this country? NBR put the question to the NZTA, which in turn forwarded it to the Ministry of Transport. The MoT percolated on the issue for 24 hours, then general manager aviation and maritime Nick Brown responded that Mr McCrae is not breaking the law. Mr Brown qualifies, "While the use of the Tesla autopilot feature is legal in New Zealand, all current New Zealand road rules regarding the safe operation of a vehicle must be complied with at all times.