The driver blamed Tesla sales staff, who he says oversold the "autopilot" function
A Tesla electric car driver crashed in Beijing after mistaking the vehicle’s "autopilot" mode for a "self-driving" feature.
Although no-one was killed, the driver blamed the accident on Tesla sales staff overplaying the car’s actual capabilities, saying they oversold the autopilot function - a system that takes control of steering and braking in certain conditions - as ’self-driving’.
While not a completely self-driving car, Tesla’s autopilot allows a car to brake, accelerate and steer for the equivalent of motorway driving.
Tesla said it had reviewed data to confirm the car was in autopilot mode when the crash happened in China’s capital last week, adding that it was the driver’s responsibility to maintain control of the vehicle.
In this case, it said, the driver’s hands were not detected on the steering wheel.
The driver, a 33-year-old computer programmer called Luo Zhen, told Reuters he was driving to work when the accident happen.
After engaging the autopilot function - something he said he does often on Beijing’s highways - Luo 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," Tesla said.
"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 Tesla’s sales staff, saying they promoted the system as "self-driving".
"The impression they give everyone is that this is self-driving, this isn’t assisted driving," he said.
It’s possible that the car’s autopilot capabilities were lost in translation between Tesla’s marketing executives and Chinese sales staff.
Interviews conducted by Reuters with several other China-based Tesla drivers have said salespeople had described the cars’ function in Chinese as "self-driving" - a term the company generally avoids using in English.
"They all described it as being able to drive itself," said one Shanghai resident, who bought a Tesla Model S last year.
The term "zidong jiashi" appears several times on Tesla’s Chinese portal, which is literally translated to mean "self-driving". It is also the term for airplane autopilot, which could be where the confusion comes from.
However, Tesla was adamant it had "never described autopilot as an autonomous technology or a ’self-driving car,’", adding that any third-party descriptions to this effect are not accurate.
While the crash is Tesla’s first known auto-pilot related incident in China, it’s not the first ever.
Earlier this year, Tesla saw its first fatal accident in Florida. The driver, Joshua Brown, died after after autopilot sensors on a Model S vehicle failed to distinguish a white tractor-trailer crossing the highway against a bright sky.
Such accidents have turned up the pressure on auto industry executives and regulators to tighten rules on automated driving technology.
However, Tesla’s autopilot technology isn’t all bad, and has proven itself in the past.
Just this week, a man who was struck by pulmonary embolism while driving his Tesla motor was saved by his car’s autopilot, taking over the controls when he was unable to drive.