But while these critics may have the traditional bully pulpit of the Senate or other institutions, they have no real power to change any policy on their own. An actual impact may instead come from an unglamorous public agency, one that many Americans think of as only capable of offering customers long wait times: the Department of Motor Vehicles. The California DMV has become the first US government entity to formally move against the naming of “full self-driving.”
Automotive regulation has traditionally fallen to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, and Congress, which can push NHTSA to regulate specific things like driver-assist technology. But NHTSA and Congress have spent recent years swept away in the excitement and lobbying surrounding a more eye-catching technology — fully autonomous vehicles.
NHTSA has also cited its powers to protect the public from motor vehicle risks that it received when created in 1970.
NHTSA has even taken steps toward standards for one driver-assist feature, automatic emergency braking. But the first major regulatory impact may be from that unlikely candidate, the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Most Americans’ interactions with their own state DMV is limited to dreary, underfunded offices with long lines and beleaguered staff. Most people are there to fill out forms and pay fees for various bureaucratic duties that the agency undertakes.
But that is not the entirety of the California DMV.
Now, the California DMV is flexing the type of muscle that could force Tesla to drop the name “full self-driving,” according to autonomous driving experts.
Tesla’s use of the words “full self-driving” and “Autopilot,” as well as its descriptors of the technology on its website, suggest the vehicles are autonomous, when they aren’t, the DMV says in its complaint.
Tesla has long qualified the limits of its systems with disclaimers. But the DMV says in its complaint that one Tesla disclaimer “contradicts the original untrue or misleading labels and claims, which is misleading, and does not cure the violation.”
It’s unclear how Tesla and the DMV’s differences might be resolved, and the conflict could include lengthy litigation.
A settlement could include changes to how Tesla talks about the systems on its website, a promise to avoid similar behavior in the future, or even new names for its products, according to Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina law school who researches autonomous vehicles.
“Full self-driving describes a system that is used by a driver. That’s making me dizzy,” Smith said. “How can a driver use a full self-driving system?”
This is not the first fight over this type of language. A German court ruled in 2020 that Tesla’s language was misleading, which the automaker appealed last year.
The California DMV’s actions are officially limited to the state, but the impact could be much greater. It’s routine for California to lead on regulations and for other states to follow, such as vehicle emission standards. California’s large population makes tailoring vehicles just for that state too expensive for most automakers.
“Once you talk about one state investigating, you could talk about 50 states potentially investigating,” said Smith, adding that it will become easier politically and factually. “They’re not putting their necks out.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.