Tesla’s vaunted – but still unavailable – Auto Pilot system will allow drivers to have their Model S automatically change lanes when they flick on the turn signal. And the way Tesla sees it, that removes some of the liability from the automaker.

Auto Pilot is Tesla’s first real step into semi-autonomous driving, combining adaptive cruise control with auto-steering to keep the car spaced safely away from the vehicle ahead and driving between the lines.

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But when Tesla demonstrated the system way back in October at the D event, it showed off its automatic lane-change feature. That system uses 12 sensors split between the front and back of the car along with the forward facing camera to decided when it’s safe to perform a lane change. But the only way it would move over is if the driver used the turn signal.

Tesla believes that if the driver indicates he wants to do a lane change by using the signal, that means they’ve decided that the maneuver is safe, and that could limit the liability for Tesla.

According to Mike Ramsey over at the Wall Street Journal:

By hitting a turn-signal stalk, a driver theoretically acknowledges road conditions are appropriate for a passing maneuver and therefore takes responsibility for the consequences.

Currently, cars with so-called driver-assistance features, such as those that keep a car within lane lines, are legal and typically require the driver to remain actively engaged in the vehicle’s operation. For cars in which the human doesn’t necessarily have to be fully engaged, the rules are murkier.

And that’s the larger issue right now. There are no laws prohibiting these semi-autonomous systems from being used on the road. Because of that, Tesla – and other automakers working on similar systems – are in the gray between the driver being in complete control and fully-autonomous systems taking over.

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Tesla originally promised that Auto Pilot would be available in the next few months after its October debut. That’s been pushed back to sometime in June with the seventh version of its software, and now the WSJ is reporting that it might be further delayed beyond the update this summer.

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Contact the author at damon@jalopnik.com.
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