The first death of a driver in a Tesla Model S with its Autopilot system engaged has exposed a fault line running through the self-driving car industry. In one camp, Tesla and many other carmakers believe the best route to a truly driverless car is a step-by-step approach where the vehicle gradually extends control over more functions and in more settings. Tesla’s limited Autopilot system is currently in what it calls “a public beta phase,” with new features arriving in over-the-air software updates.
Google and most self-driving car startups take an opposite view, aiming to deliver vehicles that are fully autonomous from the start, requiring passengers to do little more than tap in their destinations and relax.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) classifies automation systems from Level 1, sporting basic lane-keeping or anti-lock brakes, through to Level 4, where humans need never touch the wheel (if there is one).
A Level 2 system like Tesla’s Autopilot can take over in certain circumstances, such as highways, but requires human oversight to cope with situations that the car cannot handle—such as detecting pedestrians, cyclists, or, tragically, a white tractor-trailer crossing its path in bright sunlight.