Translating thoughts and ideas from one language to another creates lots of problems. Tesla has used the word Autopilot for years and now has the phrase “Full Self Driving” as part of its corporate encyclopedia. In Germany, it uses “Autopilot” in its marketing but translates Full Self Driving as “Autopilot inclusive,” with “full potential for autonomous driving.”
The Center for Protection Against Unfair Competition — a German nonprofit supported by industry associations, chambers of commerce, and individual companies in several industries — filed suit, claiming those words and phrases constituted false advertising. This week, a court in Munich agreed and ordered Tesla to stop using them in its advertising, including on its German website.
It’s all just a silly misunderstanding, Elon Musk says.
We’re working with EU regulators to improve rules. Spirit of rules is correct, but exact language doesn’t quite align with spirit. Navigate on Autopilot working well in rest of world.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 8, 2019
“A legal framework for autonomous inner-city driving doesn’t even exist yet in Germany,” Andreas Ottofuelling, a lawyer for the group, said in a press statement reported by CNBC. “And other functions aren’t working yet as advertised.”
The debate about calling Tesla’s package of electronic and digital driver aids “Autopilot” has raged probably since 2014 when Autopilot launched or perhaps even 2013. In October 2016, the company first began installing hardware on Model S and Model X cars built in Fremont that would eventually allow for full self-driving capability — once the software was ready.
The company likens Autopilot technology to the systems pilots use when flying airplanes, which assist in control of an aircraft but are always subservient to the commands issued by humans (except in certain bizarre circumstances involving the Boeing 737 Max). Musk can fly airplanes (of course) and it seemed only natural for him to use the term Autopilot in cars as well, for when driver-assist systems help drivers.
Ever noticed how planes have Autopilot, but they still have two human pilots?
“Autopilot does not replace human operators. Instead Autopilot assist’s the operator’s control of the vehicle, allowing the operator to focus on brorader aspects of operation”https://t.co/R4Qkt9ooXj pic.twitter.com/BkYLQVX8TG
— Whole Mars Catalog (@WholeMarsBlog) July 14, 2020
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 14, 2020
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 14, 2020
As soon as the first cars with Autopilot were delivered, though, some drivers began crawling into the back seat to read the newspaper on the way to work (temporarily, for YouTube views), deliberately pointing their cars at speeding cement mixers just to see how they would react, and performing other eye-popping gags for views. To make matters worse, Teslas on Autopilot have crashed into the back or sides of tractor trailers, fire engines, and emergency vehicles.
As CNBC points out, Musk has not helped himself by making insinuations or grand statements about Autopilot that have not materialized. Musk started talking up the company’s Autopilot efforts in 2013. He said “generalized full autonomy” was in development in 2015. By 2016, Tesla told customers that all of its cars in production would include full self-driving hardware. Though, hardware from those cars needed to be upgraded — to what is known as Hardware 3.0 — starting in spring of 2019. Tesla provides these upgrades free of charge.
Although Tesla has been hyping self-driving cars since 2016, it still hasn’t completed the cross-country, hands-free drive Musk said would be possible by the end of 2017. In April 2019, Musk said: “We expect to be feature complete in self-driving this year, and we expect to be confident enough from our standpoint to say that we think people do not need to touch the wheel and can look out the window sometime probably … in the second quarter of next year.” Musk said in a call with investors in May 2019 that Tesla expected to have 1 million vehicles on the road by the end of 2020 that had “Full Self-Driving” capability, starting to open the door for “robotaxis.”
There is no question Tesla has pushed self-driving technology forward, just as it has been the principal driver of the EV revolution. Whether Elon likes it or not, though, many have found that the language his company has chosen to describe its autonomous driving technology has suggested it could do more than the words imply — even if Tesla Autopilot functionality does indeed match or exceed the autopilot functionality of airplanes. Musk has no intention of changing that terminology, but in Germany, at least, it will be forced to come up with different language to describe the purpose and function of its driving-assist systems.