Is Tesla Autopilot Legal? Where the Law Draws the Line

Is Tesla Autopilot Legal? Where the Law Draws the Line

The Tesla Autopilot has revolutionized the way many people around the world approach driving. With a complete range of safety and self-driving features, it is understandable if you wonder if the future of driverless cars is already here. However, the question of whether or not Autopilot is legal is a bit murky at this time.

Tesla Autopilot is completely legal in the United States, but it is essential to understand what that means. The technology behind Autopilot is allowed, but fully self-driving vehicles are not permitted at this time. It is important to remember that a licensed driver must always remain behind the wheel.

With all of the technology now available with Autopilot, it is important to know what you are and are not legally able to do with it. Safety has been enhanced, and driving has become a lot more fun due to this invention. Continue reading to learn where the law draws the line with the Tesla Autopilot.

What is the Law Concerned About with Autopilot?

Autopilot was designed to account for human limitations when it comes to driving. Humans can only process so much information at once. They can also only see in one direction at a time. Autopilot accounts for these deficiencies by doing what humans cannot. You might be wondering, then, why the law is so concerned about what Autopilot can do.

The problem with Autopilot is that it cannot currently think and react as humans do. There are so many different variables on the road to take into account when driving that they cannot all possibly be programmed into the Autopilot system. The human element is still necessary to disengage Autopilot when something goes awry.

What is Autopilot Permitted to Do?

You may have heard that Autopilot can control certain features while driving, so now you may be confused. Allow us to clear up that confusion. As long as a licensed driver behind the wheel, there are a few features built into Autopilot that can actually control the steering wheel on behalf of the driver. 

The key is that the driver is always conscious and alert so that they can take over if they notice a potential problem that Autopilot did not catch. It is also important to remember that Autopilot will not drive itself. There are just some features that it will use to make driving easier, safer, and more convenient for the driver. 

When it comes to the law, there are two distinct components that you need to know about. 

  • Autopilot Features
  • Full Self-Driving Capabilities

When enabled, some of the features will be able to do the driving for you in a limited number of situations. Since drivers cannot see everywhere around them while moving at a high rate of speed, Autopilot is designed to fill in the gap safely. 

Most jurisdictions do allow Autopilot to perform the following functions without first needing input from the driver.

  • Steering – In certain situations, Autopilot can adjust your steering in order to avoid certain obstacles or ensure that you do not cause an accident. A perfect example of this is moving outside of your lane without signaling. If you do that, the system can nudge the vehicle back in place without the driver having to do anything. 
  • Braking – There are several occasions when Autopilot can apply the brakes. One of those involves an upcoming traffic light or stop sign. We will discuss that feature and the legality of it in a moment. The system may also apply the brakes if it senses a collision in the front is likely to happen if the car does not slow down immediately.
  • Acceleration – If Autopilot can apply the brakes on behalf of the driver, then surely it can accelerate as well. That is certainly the case in limited situations. One of those is when the advanced cruise control setting is enabled. This feature will accelerate and decelerate on behalf of the driver to keep up with the prevailing traffic pattern. As long as the driver is in his or her seat with hands on the wheel, this feature is perfectly legal.

These three examples alone illustrate the power and technology that Autopilot brings to the table. At the same time, certain inherent limitations must be taken into account. In other words, a Tesla cannot simply drive itself. You cannot just program in your destination, sit in the back to relax, only to arrive at the designated time. That, for sure, is against the law. 

5 Tools That Make Autopilot Work

When the law considers how well Autopilot can function independent of human drivers, many factors come into the process. One of those involves the tools that Autopilot makes use of to interpret and process data. The following five technological tools make this all possible. 

  • A comprehensive computer display screen – This is the brain of the system. Drivers can visualize precisely what Autopilot is doing at all times and can then react accordingly. This must be fully functioning for the Autopilot system to be legally operated.
  • Vision processing tools – There are so many variables to consider when driving. Humans have limitations in this area, which is a primary contributor to accidents. Autopilot is working to minimize that by having several tools that increase its vision around the vehicle. In addition, Autopilot can continually analyze the mountains of data that it receives in a fraction of a second.
  • Radar system – There is also a radar system that Autopilot makes use of. This allows the system to visualize obstacles that pose a potential thread up to 250 meters away. Combined with driver input, this often provides information in enough time to avoid an accident. 
  • Numerous sensors – The sensors surrounding a Tesla vehicle are perfectly legal and go a long way towards promoting safe driving. There are multiple ultrasonic sensors placed around the car, each one serving a specific purpose. They can sense objects that could become a problem to a moving vehicle far more quickly than the human eye can. 
  • Multiple cameras – Autopilot has become so effective because it has cameras that can see just about every angle unimaginable. While a human can only see in one direction at a time, these cameras are able to provide a continual and comprehensive view of everything taking place around the vehicle. Some of these cameras can see up to 250 meters away with incredible precision.

These are the tools that Autopilot relies upon to do its job effectively. The law allows them to be used in conjunction with a licensed driver. They are meant to aid but not to take over the complete function of driving at this time. As long as a driver keeps his hands on the steering wheel, the system is functional and legal.

The beauty of these tools is that they are always working in the background. As long as a Tesla owner has activated the Autopilot system, the driver can rely on the tools to be fully functional at all times. That is what promotes safe driving and, in time, should lead to fewer accidents on the road. 

2 Examples of Autopilot Doing the Driving

Again, the issue here is the legality of Autopilot. While fully self-driving cars are not legal at this time, certain functions of the system can act on a driver’s behalf without first getting confirmation. These features are continually receiving updates directly from the cloud as enhancements are made to the system. 

Here are two examples of functions that Autopilot can perform independently of driver interaction. 


No matter how conscientious and experienced a driver may be, there will inevitably be temporary lapses in attention to contend with. When it comes to swaying outside of one’s lane, this can lead to a potential accident. The car must stay inside its lane in order to maximize safety.

Autopilot has been designed with an Autosteer feature. When activated, it is continually monitoring the direction of the car. One of the things it looks for is which lane the vehicle is currently in. It will work to make sure that the car stays in that lane. If the car begins to move outside of the lane, Autopilot will actually correct the steering to center the vehicle. 

There are times when a driver may fail to turn on the signal indicator when making a lane change. Autosteer also serves as a reminder to do this. If the turn signal has been turned on, the Autosteer feature will not work, as it will assume that the driver is in control of the switch. However, there are functions that will kick in if a collision is imminent. 

The law currently permits Autopilot to use its Autosteer function to make minor adjustments to the direction of the vehicle. However, once again, the driver must remain in control at all times. The driver can override this function by simply moving the steering wheel. There is no tug of war that will happen between computer and driver.

Traffic-Aware Cruise Control

This is arguably one of the most popular features of Autopilot, particularly when it comes to highway driving. This system will allow drivers to set the car at a certain speed and then allow the system to automatically accelerate and decelerate as necessary when traffic is encountered. 

This system not only increases safety, but it maximizes efficiency. Autopilot will know when to slow down and speed up based upon the distance of traffic in front of the car. With the driver firmly in control, the Autopilot will apply the brakes for the driver. Autopilot will then apply the accelerator to speed up the vehicle when it is safe to do so.

When this system is first enabled, drivers need to allow a few trips to become comfortable with its functionality. This is because it can seem unnerving at first to allow a computer to determine when the brakes should be applied. It will require a bit of give and take before the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control function becomes second nature. 

At the same time, drivers mustn’t just set this feature and then take their eyes off the road. That is not what the system is designed for, nor is it legal to do so. Drivers must always assume that something can go wrong, so they must be ready to apply the brakes if the car gets too close to approaching traffic. 

Are Fully Self-Driven Cars Legal?

If you go to activate Autopilot, you will have the option to purchase a full self-driving package of tools to go with it. By the sounds of it, you would not be alone in thinking that this means that your car will drive itself. However, this is not the case. As mentioned, fully self-driven cars are not legal. So, it is crucial to understand what this suite of technology brings you.

The full self-driving package is a suite of technological tools that are designed to enhance the driving experience. When enabled, the Autopilot system will make certain decisions that are meant to provide for a safer journey. It can also map out routes and even bring the car to you in a parking lot. What it cannot do, however, is drive for you. 

There is a clear distinction in the law when it comes to what fully self-driven means. Legally, certain features of Autopilot that end up operating the vehicle without the driver needing to do anything are acceptable. This is why the car can speed up and slow down without any confirmation needed. Gentle steering corrections are also permitted. 

What About the Stop and Go Feature?

This a relatively new function of Autopilot that is as close to self-driving as the law likely allows at this time. It is still being tested, but it works thanks to sensors that can tell when the vehicle is approaching a stop sign or traffic light. If the driver does not start slowing down in time, the system will do so on their behalf. 

This feature is particularly useful when driving in the city. One of the major causes of accidents is driver distraction. While a driver is meant to keep his or her eyes on the road at all times, there are occasions where this may not occur. Running a stop sign or traffic light can bring about disastrous consequences. 

The Stop and Go feature allows Autopilot to take over control in those rare situations where the driver is either unable to or is unaware of the upcoming change in traffic. However, this does not mean that drivers can just do anything they want because Autopilot is enabled. It is only designed to be a backup assistant that is used to enhance the safety of the driver and passengers. 

Explaining How Navigate with Autopilot Works

If there was ever a feature of Autopilot that pushes current legislation limits, this would be it. Designed for use on the highway, this is the feature that allows drivers to put in a destination and then watch as the car determines the best route to travel. 

Many features on Autopilot only work when the navigation system is being used. This is due a variety of factors, but current regulations are the primary factor. Drivers must either manually input a destination or allow Autopilot to determine where they are going based upon a calendar that has been synched with the system.

Here are some of the components of Navigate with Autopilot that allow it to function so effectively:

  • Lane change suggestions – Driving on the highway requires you to always be planning ahead. It is important to be in the correct lane when it comes time to exit. To keep you from having to change multiple lanes quite quickly, this feature on Autopilot will propose necessary lane changes at the right time. You can confirm the lane change and allow the car to move over without you having to do anything.
  • Successful interchange transfers – Many highways have complex interchanges that are often difficult to navigate. This is particularly true when you are in a new area. Having this feature enabled will allow Autopilot to get your car in the perfect position to get on the right interchange each and every time. 
  • Proper exiting – Arriving at your destination safely requires that you take the correct exit. Autopilot will know just when you need to get off the highway, and it will do it safely. 
  • Merging – Getting on and off the highway requires a series of mergers. Autopilot is now able to do that for you. 

Each of these features can work without the driver needing first to confirm the maneuver. At the same time, the law is clear that drivers must still be involved every step of the way. One simple twist of the steering wheel will correct whatever Autopilot has in mind. 


If you are going to use the Tesla Autopilot, it is important to know what is legal and what is not. While certain features allow the car to drive itself, you are not permitted to do that. This is a system designed to enhance your safety, but only with your direct involvement at all times.

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The articles here on are created by Greg, a Tesla vehicle and Tesla solar expert with nearly half a decade of hands-on experience. The information on this site is fact-checked and tested in-person to ensure the best possible level of accuracy.

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