Tesla Claims DMV Implied Approval of Autopilot and FSD Branding

More than a year after the California Department of Motor Vehicles claimed that Tesla was falsely advertising the autonomous capabilities of its driver assistance features, the now-Texas-based automaker is defending itself in a new legal filing.

Tesla, however, believes that it’s in the clear because of the implications. Specifically, Tesla says that the DMV implied its approved use of its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving branding after the department had failed to take corrective action when investigating Tesla nearly a decade earlier.

Tesla’s argument is two-fold. First, for the term “Autopilot,” it argues that because the regulatory body investigated the automaker in 2014 over the use of its branding and decided not to take action, it implied the permitted use of the term. As for the term “self-driving,” Tesla says that because the DMV did not include clauses to prohibit the use of the term “self-driving” in draft regulations surrounding vehicle autonomy regulations, it implied that Tesla could continue using its “Full Self-Driving” branding.

“The DMV chose not to take any action against Tesla or otherwise communicate to Tesla that its advertising or use of these brand names was or might be problematic,” wrote Tesla in its response.

Last year, the California DMV filed two complaints with the California Office of Administrative Hearings. The complaints alleged that Tesla made “untrue or misleading” claims about its vehicles’ autonomous capabilities present in its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving driver assistance software suites. Specifically, it referenced Tesla’s website where a statement is made that claims the FSD “is designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat” and that it can “navigating urban streets, complex intersections and freeways.”

“[Tesla’s] vehicles equipped with those ADAS features could not at the time of those advertisements, and cannot now, operate as autonomous vehicles,” wrote the DMV in its 2022 filing against Tesla. “These advertisements are a deceptive practice.”

Despite these public-facing advertisement, Tesla has been fairly transparent about the limitations of its systems, at least to owners. For example, its website now clearly states that Autopilot is a hands-on feature that requires driver attentiveness. Similar statements are in its vehicle manuals, however, the semantics could be confusing to the average car buyer—something that the DMV is using to build its case.

Tesla removed a clause on its Autopilot support site sometime in September 2019 which noted that it classified Autopilot as a Level 2 automated system. It’s not clear if this was to clean up its site and avoid confusing would-be owners using industry terms, or if it was part of a rebranding strategy for its driver assistance products. And while the automaker has not cited it publicly, previous exchanges between Tesla’s general counsel and the DMV note that FSD Beta, formally called Autosteer on City Streets, will continue to be defined as Level 2 in its final release.

The California DMV isn’t the only party with a bone to pick with Tesla over its driver assistance software. Some owners have also attempted to sue the automaker in the past over alleged false advertisements. In fact, an owner in the U.K. was recently awarded a $10,000 settlement after taking the automaker to court over its inability to deliver on FSD’s promises since the owner took delivery in 2019. Meanwhile, owners have also complained that Tesla’s progress on its software has regressed since the removal of ultrasonic sensors in 2022, resulting in many vehicles being unable to fully utilize features present in the Enhanced Autopilot suite and above.

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