German Court Overrules “Tesla Autopilot” Marketing Ban

Tesla Autopilot in use in Germany. Photo by Zach Shahan | CleanTechnica.

The short news update on a case that extends back to 2019 is that an appeals court has overturned a regional court ruling from 2019 that determined Tesla could not use the term “Autopilot” on its website and in other marketing materials in Germany. In other words, Tesla is indeed allowed to use the term “Autopilot” on its website and in other marketing materials in Germany. This is reportedly a final ruling.

There’s a series of arguments for why Tesla should be allowed to use the term Autopilot for its semi-autonomous driving features, and there’s a series of arguments for why it shouldn’t. I personally side with the former, but I’ll present both of them below before coming back to the news and a similar such case stateside.

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Tesla Autopilot with “Full Self Driving” suite in action stopping at a stop sign. Photo by Zach Shahan | CleanTechnica.

As far as why Tesla Autopilot is completely legitimate and fine terminology for Tesla’s ADAS (advanced driver-assistance system) features, the arguments are:

  • Autopilot, as used in the aircraft world, does not allow the pilots to just go to sleep or put on a movie and stop watching what is happening. (Notably, Elon Musk has a pilot license and used to fly a jet around — plus, he founded and is CEO of SpaceX — so he has extensive real-world experience of the tech.)
  • Nowhere does Tesla say that Autopilot can completely drive a person around or that drivers don’t need to pay attention.
  • In fact, there are numerous notifications and warnings of all sorts that indicate that drivers must stay alert, monitor the road and the car, and take over from Autopilot whenever needed; and that also inform the driver he/she is fully responsible for driving the car.
  • Extra Autopilot features cost several thousand dollars, and the “Full Self Driving” suite now costs $12,000. Assuming that people would buy these extra features and not be aware of what they can and cannot do is a bit of a wild assumption.

Taking all of those points together, I don’t see the problem with the term “Tesla Autopilot,” and I think it’s sensible the judge in the appeals court in Germany came to the same conclusion.

Arguments on the other side include the following:

  • AutoPilot” makes it sound like the car drives completely autonomously, and some people may assume they can go to sleep, watch a movie, or simply not pay attention to the road.
  • A lot of hype around future completely self-driving Tesla cars and even robotaxis may make some consumers think those exist today. (Again, I really just find these bends the imagination far too far.)
  • Some people have posted videos on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, reddit, etc. of themselves or others sleeping while Teslas drive themselves, sitting in the backseat, or doing other ridiculous things.

I know that plenty of people come down on both sides of this issue, but I honestly have a hard time seeing the latter series of arguments as more sensible as the former.

Screenshot from Tesla’s shareholder meeting in late 2020 showing an Autopilot slide.

The term “Full Self Driving” (FSD) is a bit of a different matter. Naturally, it implies … full self driving. However, the point of the suite is that it will eventually be able to provide full self driving once the software gets to that level, and I think anyone who buys it knows (or should know) that Teslas are not capable of full self driving or robotaxi service at this point. The one thing on this matter that the judge in that case in Germany reportedly sided with the critics on was that Tesla could not say on its website that additional FSD features would be “by the end of the year” (with the year in the original case being 2019). Instead, Tesla has been using the phrase “in the near future” for a while now — which seems more sensible anyway given that Tesla has had a hard time predicting when it would roll out new features.

That’s the story in Germany. As we recently reported, there’s now a similar case in California. The California DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) has contested that the terms “Autopilot” and “Full Self Driving” are false advertising. If the court agrees, Tesla’s license to produce and sell vehicles in the state of California could even be revoked. Considering that Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, produces a large portion of the company’s cars day after day and month after month, that kind of conclusion would be a back-breaking blow to the company. I don’t see the case concluding in that way for several reasons, not least of which is that it would be a truly harmful and absurd response to a pedantic matter of ADAS terminology.

It should also be noted that there is no uniform terminology for ADAS technology across the industry, other automakers use all kinds of creative names and claims (including things like ProPILOT and “hands-free driving”), and I’ve seen commercials from other automakers where the person driving their car doesn’t even have hands on the wheel. This is such a gray area with so much loose language and ambitious marketing that it seems disingenuous to “crack down” on just one company. Potentially, it could be useful to establish industry-wide terminology for certain capabilities (like “automatic lane keeping” and “adaptive cruise control” and “automatic lane changing” and “full self driving”). However, without that, as long as an automaker is providing adequate warnings, disclosures, and attempts to make sure drivers are well aware of their responsibilities versus the car’s, I see cases sometimes like these as mostly pointless and very counterproductive.

On the plus side, one could say that, in response to cases and concerns like these, Tesla has added a lot of disclosures and warnings over the years to its website and within its cars that have abuse encourage more people to not the company’s ADAS features . Perhaps fewer people are willing to engage in “sleeping” stunts and “backseat driving” due to the barrage of disclosures and warnings Tesla has added. Perhaps.

As always, I am curious to hear your take on the matter. Also, if I’ve missed some important facts on these cases or Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving technology, feel free to point out the omissions.


 

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