In the middle of July 2020, a German court, the country court (Landgericht) in Munich, the city I am living in, decided that the term “Autopilot” was misleading in Tesla marketing materials. The judge explained that Tesla* is implying the system works autonomously and automatically with the name Autopilot. “By the use of the terminology ‘Autopilot’ and other definitions, the defendant suggests their vehicles would be able to drive fully autonomously.”
The organization that sued Tesla, the Wettbewerbszentrale, is an NGO organization with many members, but the request to sue Tesla reportedly came from one of the large German automakers (according to media sources). Daimler, BMW, and Volkswagen Group are members of the Wettbewerbszentrale and pay a fee that is not publicly disclosed. No one has transparency who pays what amount to Wettbewerbszentrale or when, and that is almost an invitation for bribery. The organization only sues if a member asks for it, which has led to the odd situation that companies that have been sued in the past decided to become members.
In September 2020, the EU NCAP, an NGO that has many European government authorities as members, tested driving-assist systems and ranked Tesla Autopilot below average. The main reason for the low rank of the functionality test was explained as follows: “Tesla’s systems name Autopilot is inappropriate as it suggests full automation.” In their valuation guidelines, they explain, “A good system name should not be misleading and contain Assistance to clearly identify the system design and its purpose to assist the driver. Moreover, the system name should never contain the word ‘auto’ or reference to automation.”
Tesla ranked #6 out of the 10 tested systems. That is below average despite Autopilot ranked as the best system of all in two of the three functional safety categories. The top 3 driver-assist systems according to EU NCAP were: #1 Daimler, #2 BMW, and #3 Audi, a company from Volkswagen Group.
Tesla was accused by the German court as well as from the EU NCAP of misleading the consumer by indicating that the system is driving autonomously and automatically. If we review the descriptions of the driving-assist systems from Daimler, BMW, and Audi on their webpages, though, we find the terminology “automatic” and “autonomous” listed in many places. Neither the German court nor the EU NCAP seem to have an issue measuring the US manufacturer Tesla differently than the large German automakers.
An Autopilot in a plane is a flying-assist system, like Autopilot in a Tesla is a driving-assist system whereby the driver, or “pilot,” needs to be ready at all times to take over or intervene where required. Given that fact, we need to ask ourselves why the German court, as well as the EU NCAP, find it misleading terminology as Tesla uses it. Does anyone think that a plane with autopilot on doesn’t need pilots closely supervising it?
“Auto” means nothing other than that some functions are automated, as we know from so many other systems we use every day. Automation does not indicate 100% autonomous abilities, and Tesla has clearly defined the system not to be 100% autonomous yet. In contrast to the statement from the judge, the average person in Germany is very well aware of this.
I had the opportunity to use Tesla Autopilot in Europe as well as in the USA, and I am aware of how much the system is restricted in its abilities in the EU already. It is currently without any doubt superior in its functionality compared to other systems, and the NCAP confirmed that too. How, then, can they seriously reduce the score in the third category — where only the name and “driving collaboration” were listed as the main issue — so much that the overall score of the entire test results in a below-average 6 out of 10.
The system that works best in emergency and driving assist functionality, which avoids accidents and fatalities the best, is scored below average because the name was not selected according to how the NCAP wanted it to be. European ministries from all the main EU countries are members of NCAP and accept that consumers select vehicles based on these results, which in this case can mean choosing an inferior driving-assist system and by doing that risking the lives and health of their citizens!
Obviously, the consumer is not the one who benefits from the NCAP score. Instead, it is certain members of the automotive industry who can now claim to have, according to the testing agency, the best systems — even if that is factually, objectively wrong. The ADAC, a German club and one of the largest automotive lobby groups in Germany, stated that, “as expected, the most expensive driving-assist systems from German premium manufacturers are the best.”
Whoever states the German driving-assist systems are the best have not read the NCAP test results, perhaps making themselves guilty for people selecting inferior driving assist systems and getting into accidents. The European ministries that are members of NCAP are guilty of avoidable accidents, injuries, and fatalities in their countries. A naming convention does not cause an accident, but a poorly functioning driving-assist system does.
If we investigate carefully what the court decided and what the NCAP tests concluded, it is fair to say that there are too many oddities in these cases to call all of them just a coincidence.
Follow the money.
*Full disclosure: I own shares in Tesla [TSLA], and have for several years.