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German Court Rules: Tesla Autopilot Is False Advertising

In America, for reasons many people can’t quite comprehend, the regulatory agencies haven’t said much about the inflated claims

Here at Mind Matters News, we have long been critics of Elon Musk’s claims about his “self-driving” Teslas. Autopilot is a cool feature but marketing it as “full self-driving” is simply a lie, and a dangerous one at that.

Musk (right) has been making false claims about Autopilot for almost half a decade now. He claimed in 2016 that all Teslas that left the factory were equipped with the hardware for Level 5 full self-driving.

If you’re not aware of the levels of self-driving defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Level 5 means that the car will take you wherever you want to go and you can sleep in the back. Level 4 means that, in some situations (for example, a well-defined area), you can sleep in the back. Level 3 means that the car will basically get you from point A to point B on its own, but the driver has to be available for emergencies. Level 2 means that the car can perform some steering functions on its own. Level 1 means that the car basically has cruise control.

Tesla has, for years, been advertising their system as a Level 5 system, while it is really a high Level 2 or a low Level 3. The company has even been claiming that its cars will appreciate in value because, eventually, you’ll be able to push a button and send your car out to make money for you as a taxi for other people.

In America, for reasons many people can’t quite comprehend, the regulatory agencies haven’t said much about this. Likely it’s because many Tesla owners consider themselves part of Elon Musk’s mission and so are willing to overlook the fact that they paid more to get a service they haven’t actually received. Thus, they aren’t besieging the agencies to do something.

Not so in Germany, however. Recently, a non-profit industry organization, Wettbewerbszentrale, sued Tesla over its advertising for Autopilot, claiming that the product does not match what is advertised. Yesterday, the court ruled against Tesla:

The Munich court agreed with the industry body’s assessment and banned Tesla Germany from including “full potential for autonomous driving” and “Autopilot inclusive” in its German advertising materials.

It said such claims amounted to misleading business practices, adding that the average buyer might be given the impression that the car could drive without human intervention and might suggest such a system was now legal on German roads.

German court bans Tesla ad statements related to autonomous driving” at Reuters (July 14, 2020)

A German language report from the non-profit that filed the suit may be found here. Tesla can still appeal the ruling and is likely to do so.

Elon Musk himself responded to the ruling, arguing that Autopilot is named after a system that doesn’t replace pilots and therefore he doesn’t think that the ruling stands up:

“Tesla autopilot was literally named after the term used in aviation,” Musk responded to a person who tweeted a screenshot of the Wikipedia entry for autopilot.

“Autopilot does not replace human operators. Instead, autopilot assists the operator’s control of the vehicle, allowing the operator to focus on broader aspects of operations”, reads the crowdsourced encyclopaedia, which courts have previously ruled inadmissable.

While its name and features are consistent with the similar technology used for air travel, given a Tesla car is more readily available to “the average consumer” than a jet plane, the court applied different standards.

Jack Gramenz, “Elon Musk defends Tesla Autopilot name after German court ruling” at news.com.au

However, apart from issues around what a customer might reasonably be expected to assume, Musk’s current statement contradicts a long line of messaging from the company and Elon himself about what the product can do.

The expected appeal should be interesting and may lead to a more serious discussion of self-driving in general.

You may also enjoy:

Elon Musk walks back full self-driving claims
His Q3 earnings call with investors was a stark contrast to earlier claims about a robotaxi fleet.
(Jonathan Bartlett)


Guess what? You already own a self-driving car! Tech hype hits the stratosphere. (Jonathan Bartlett)

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

German Court Rules: Tesla Autopilot Is False Advertising