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Tesla Busted in Germany Over Autopilot Claims

Another slap on the wrist for touting the autonomous capabilities of its cars
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Tesla can no longer run ads in Germany that claim its Autopilot feature provides the “full potential for autonomous driving.”

Earlier today a regional court in Munich imposed the ban, noting that Tesla’s system isn’t fully autonomous. The ruling also points out that the company inaccurately claimed its cars would be able to drive in cities under fully automated control by the end of 2019.

Not-So-Autonomous Driving

Just last week, CEO Elon Musk announced that Tesla would achieve “basic functionality” for full Level 5 autonomy by the end of this year. The company’s current system is considered Level 2, meaning it works under some, but not most, conditions, and it requires constant monitoring by the driver.

The German court tells Bloomberg News that Tesla’s use of the term “Autopilot” and related phrases incorrectly suggests the company’s vehicles are already “technically able to drive completely autonomously” today. They can’t. And even if they could, the court points out, fully automated cars aren’t legal in Germany.

Today’s ruling is just the latest skirmish in a continuing debate about Autopilot. Everyone agrees the system can steer, brake and accelerate a car under certain conditions and types of roadways. And yes, the company tells owners that they must always monitor driving conditions and be ready to take control at any moment.

But customers aren’t always getting the message, as a series of high-profile crashes over the past four years illustrates.

Early Troubles

Musk has been touting Autopilot in glowing terms since the feature debuted in beta form in 2015. A month later the company began a series of technical updates to enhance the system’s capabilities, and it has continued to do so since then.

By 2016, the system was implicated a fatal crash and Tesla was facing increasing headwinds over the safety of the technology. Musk said the company would step up efforts to educate customers on how to use Autopilot safely.

The company agreed in 2016 to drop any reference to Autopilot on its Chinese website after a minor crash. Later that year, Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority demanded that Tesla stop using the word “Autopilot” in any advertising because it inferred more than the feature could deliver.

Do They or Don’t They?

Tesla countered with a survey indicating that its German customers understand the limits and recognize the need for drivers to remain ready to seize control.

In 2017, Tesla updated Autopilot’s software and began equipping all models with hardware it said would enable fully robotic driving. But more crashes—some fatal—were being reported. The incidents typically involved drivers who were using Autopilot but didn’t take control when the system failed to notice parked vehicles or highway barriers.

Tesla claims Autopilot makes its cars 40% safer. Safety and consumer groups are skeptical about the company’s analysis.

What’s Next?

Tesla has steadily refined Autopilot and expanded its capabilities. There’s little doubt the company will get to a fully autonomous system eventually.

But until it does, Tesla will remain stuck in the gap between what its technology can do, and what owners think it can do.

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