Tesla Autopilot involved in another crash--this time, in China

August 11, 2016

The past several months have been a roller coaster for Tesla, full of ups (e.g. the debut of the upcoming Model 3) and downs (e.g. ho-hum responses to CEO Elon Musk's "Master Plan Part Deux"). Unfortunately for Tesla fans, it's time for another down moment: the automaker has confirmed another crash involving its semi-autonomous Autopilot software.

Unlike the fatal collision that occurred on May 7 in Florida, this crash, which took place in Beijing, China, wasn't much more than a fender-bender. In fact, it appears far less severe than another recent Autopilot crash in Montana that left a Tesla without one of its wheels.

The driver in Beijing, Luo Zhen, had Autopilot engaged during his morning commute, when his Tesla Model S scraped against a Volkswagen that was parked half off the road. No one was injured, but both vehicles suffered some cosmetic damage, and the Volkswagen lots its side-view mirror.  

Tesla has reviewed the logs on Zhen's car and found that Autopilot was engaged, though the driver's hands weren't on the steering wheel at the time of the crash. That could give Tesla an "out", because the company insists that it tells all customers that Autopilot isn't a fully autonomous system. As Musk reiterated in his Master Plan, Autopilot is in beta, and owners are told that they have to remain alert when the software is being used, with their hands on the wheel. 

Unfortunately, there's some question as to how or whether Tesla explains Autopilot's beta status to Chinese consumers. Zhen and other owners insist that Tesla's sales personnel in China give the impression that Autopilot is a fully autonomous driving system. Tesla's Chinese-language website describes Autopilot by using the term "zidong jiashi", which literally translates as "self-driving", according to Reuters.

This is Tesla's first accident in China and obviously, the first involving its Autopilot software there. How the Chinese public will react--and how Tesla might change its sales script in China--remains to be seen.

You can view video footage of the accident and short interview with Mr. Zhen here.

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