16 February 2019
Tesla said the driver must maintain control of the vehicle even if it is in autopilot mode. Photo: HKEJ
Tesla said the driver must maintain control of the vehicle even if it is in autopilot mode. Photo: HKEJ

Tesla car crashes in Beijing while in autopilot mode

Electric-car maker Tesla has launched an investigation after one of its cars crashed in Beijing last week while in “autopilot” mode.

The driver, a 33-year-old programmer at a tech firm, said sales staff had sold the function as “self-driving”, overplaying its actual capabilities, Reuters reports.

Tesla confirmed the car was in autopilot mode, a system that takes control of steering and braking in certain conditions.

But it stressed that it was the driver’s responsibility to maintain control of the vehicle.

In this case, the company said, the driver’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel.

The crash, Tesla’s first known such incident in China, comes months after a fatal accident in Florida, which turned up pressure on auto industry executives and regulators to tighten rules on automated driving technology.

In the Beijing crash, the driver, Luo Zhen, told Reuters that he was driving to work and engaged the autopilot function as he often did while cruising on highways.

Luo, who filmed the incident with a dashboard camera, said his car hit a vehicle parked half off the road.

The accident sheered off the parked vehicle’s side mirror and scraped both cars, but caused no injuries.

“The driver of the Tesla, whose hands were not detected on the steering wheel, did not steer to avoid the parked car and instead scraped against its side,” a Tesla spokeswoman said in an emailed response to Reuters.

“As clearly communicated to the driver in the vehicle, autosteer is an assist feature that requires the driver to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times, to always maintain control and responsibility for the vehicle, and to be prepared to take over at any time.”

Luo, however, blamed the crash on a fault in the autopilot system and said Tesla’s sales staff strongly promoted the system as “self-driving”.

“The impression they give everyone is that this is self-driving, this isn’t assisted driving,” he said.

Interviews with four other unconnected Tesla drivers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou also indicated the message conveyed by frontline sales staff did not match up with Tesla’s more clear-cut statements that the system is not “self-driving” but an advance driver assistance system (ADAS).

The Tesla owners said salespeople described the cars’ function in Chinese as “self-driving”, a term the company generally avoids using in English, and took their hands off the wheel while demonstrating it.

“They all described it as being able to drive itself,” said Shanghai resident Mao Mao, who bought a Tesla Model S last year.

The term “zidong jiashi” appears several times on Tesla’s Chinese portal, which is most literally translated to mean “self-driving”.

It is also the term for airplane autopilot, leaving room for confusion among consumers.

“We have never described autopilot as an autonomous technology or a ‘self-driving car’, and any third-party descriptions to this effect are not accurate,” the Tesla spokeswoman said.

Tesla does not regularly announce its sales data for China, where it has faced tough local competition, and it is not clear how many cars in the country have autopilot, an add-on feature that costs more than 27,000 yuan (US$4,000) extra.

The company struggled to sell its high-tech electric cars in China at first due to distribution issues and widespread concerns about charging vehicles.

There is no clear regulation on self-driving cars in China as the country is in the midst of drafting its policy toward the technology.

Under current Chinese law, drivers must keep two hands on the wheel at all times.

In another development, China’s Le Holdings Co. Ltd., also known as LeEco, said it will invest 12 billion yuan (US$1.8 billion) to build an electric car plant in eastern China’s Zhejiang province with eventual annual production capacity of 400,000 cars.

The company said in a statement its first China factory would be built in two phases in Deqing county near the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.

It did not say when it planned to complete the factory.

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