Even though Tesla’s Autopilot features are available in Tesla vehicles worldwide, the way that autopilot works in Europe is a little different than the regulations surrounding self-driving car technology in North America. This cutting-edge technology has some serious safety concerns that made the European market slow to endorse it.
Tesla has incorporated Autopilot features into its vehicles since 2015, but Tesla’s Autopilot features weren’t approved in Europe until February of 2019, when they were approved by the Netherlands Vehicle Authority. Fully autonomous vehicles are currently not legal under European safety regulations.
The road to European approval may have been rocky for Tesla’s Autopilot program. Still, the reasons Tesla has been hesitant to push its self-driving capabilities in Europe are complicated by other factors. Read on to learn more about how Tesla’s Autopilot is treated differently in Europe than America and whether it’s even legal on the road.
Tesla may offer a wide variety of features across their lineup of car models, but these features aren’t offered equally across all markets in the world. One of the biggest challenges to Tesla’s market dominance in global markets is regulatory restrictions from country to country.
Tesla’s Autopilot is legal in Europe as of 2021, but the Autopilot suite in Europe does have some Autopilot feature restrictions that don’t exist in Tesla’s North American market. Here are some of the features that are restricted in Autopilot for European markets (Source: Electrek):
- Summon distance reduction: To remain under European steering regulations, the Summon ability only works at a range of six meters or less. This restriction doesn’t make it very useful in large parking lots where the driver may be forced to park too far away to summon their vehicle.
- Auto-Lane Changing: Under European restrictions, the Auto-Lane Changing in European Teslas is designed to operate slower and can only be used on roadways with two or more lanes in either direction.
- Autosteer turning restriction: In European Teslas, the Autosteer will not make sharp turns and forces the driver to take over control of the vehicle while turning, restricting the vehicle’s self-driving capability.
- Steering reminder: The car’s system will remind the driver to return their hands to the wheel after fifteen seconds. This reminder helps ensure that a driver remains in the driver’s seat the entire time the car is in operation.
While these restrictions aren’t enough to deter European Tesla fans from purchasing the company’s vehicles in droves, it does cause some problems for Tesla that are greater than inconvenienced customers. Since Tesla depends on Autopilot’s Shadow Mode to help train its fleet artificial intelligence, it can’t collect as much data with Europe’s operating restrictions.
Europe’s restrictions against Tesla’s autopilot feature actively hurt Tesla’s AI networks and its learning potential, not just its market share in those countries. For this reason and the sake of their customers, Tesla has been in a constant battle against regulatory organizations since 2017 to have autopilot restrictions lifted.
So how did Tesla end up being restricted in European markets? The answer, surprisingly, leads back to the United Nations. This international governing body passed a resolution called UN/ECE Regulation 79 in 2017. This regulation is related to steering equipment in vehicles and made several rules that called for the features in Tesla’s Autopilot program to be downgraded.
This software downgrade was a sour blow to European Tesla owners who had already been operating the Autopilot software since its addition to the vehicles back in 2015. Many drivers expressed their anger and dismay online in response to these restrictions. One German Tesla driver reported the experience as “losing a well-working friend.” (Source: Olav in English)
Tesla sympathizes with its European customers over the loss of their car’s functionality and promises to keep fighting to have the United Nation’s regulations against self-driving cars repealed. But until Tesla’s Autopilot reaches a genuine level of autonomous operation and Europe’s governing bodies pass specific laws for autonomous vehicles, it’s still a closed deal.
Tesla nerfed the operation of its Autopilots system in European Teslas to comply with European regulations. However, the legal area is still a murky one. No one country in Europe has enough working experience with self-driving cars and autonomous technology to set regulatory standards for the others.
Technically, current European regulations demand that a car undergo type approval to gain legal status on the road. But since there are no type approval protocols for self-driving vehicles, it’s a bureaucratic Wild West. (Source: The Drive)
Tesla voluntarily made restrictions and adjustments to the operation of the self-driving AI network in European Teslas to remain in compliance. Meanwhile, they made sure to let customers know their unhappiness with the United Nation’s decision. This technical compliance greatly disappointed and angered some consumers.
In the end, it was probably a smart move considering the alternative was to possibly have the Tesla brand banned from European roads altogether. The United Nations and other European regulatory bodies are already considering new regulations governing self-driving vehicles in 2021, so Elon Musk decided it was a better idea to stay on their good side.
Tesla’s Autopilot has been approved for use in Europe, and all Model S and Model 3 vehicles shipped to Europe without Autopilot enabled were able to gain access to an updated version of Autopilot in compliance with European restrictions in May of 2019. This was following the approval of Tesla’s Autopilot program by the Netherlands Vehicle Authority.
The current version of Tesla’s Autopilot has been approved in its amended form on European roadways. However, this doesn’t mean that Tesla’s vehicles will be approved for legal use once the company’s technology manages to reach fully autonomous operation. Currently, Europe doesn’t allow any car technology to operate without a driver behind the wheel.
Tesla Autopilot was deactivated in Tesla vehicles that were shipped to Europe between 2017 and 2019, but following Europe’s approval of their updated Autopilot system, Tesla Autopilot is stock and standard with every new European Tesla.
Full Self-Driving mode is also available with restrictions, but European customers should keep in mind that this upgrade will cost ten thousand dollars to add to the basic Tesla package of whichever model they choose to buy.
It can be said that Tesla has a bit of a love-hate relationship with the German automotive market. Germany came down hard on Tesla for its use of the terms “autopilot” and “full self-driving” in marketing campaigns when objectively, Tesla’s Autopilot program doesn’t contain any functions that approach full autonomy and self-driving capability.
Another issue with Tesla and Germany is competition. One of Germany’s most famous automobile makers, BMW, is a partner of the artificial intelligence and computational processing firm Nvidia, one of Tesla’s major competitors in the self-driving car market despite the fact that Teslas use Nvidia processing, too.
In July 2020, Tesla was reprimanded by a German court for false advertising with their vehicles, specifically in their use of the terms “Autopilot” and “self-driving”. This suit was brought to the German courts by a German non-profit organization known as Center for the Protection against Unfair Competition.
These are a few of the problems that German courts had with Tesla’s advertising:
- The courts claimed that Tesla’s claim that their vehicles possess “full self-driving potential” should be considered false advertising. Not only do Tesla’s vehicles not have the technical capability for full autonomy, fully autonomous vehicles self-driving are not legal on any major roadways.
- The courts claimed that Tesla falsely claimed that self-driving Teslas would be able to navigate cities without driver input by 2019. This is objectively false since this capability is not implemented in 2021 in anything but a beta version.
- In general, the German courts argued that Tesla’s advertising and marketing campaigns promise far more features and self-driving functionality than it is able to deliver to European markets.
Tesla’s rebuttal to the German court’s charges was that Tesla’s Autopilot system was named after aviation autopilot functions – functions that are intended to guide (but not replace) the pilot. However, Tesla has promised full self-driving functionality since 2016, and little has changed in the past five years to jumpstart fully autonomous car technology for the company. (Source: Bloomberg)
Despite the crackdown on Tesla’s advertising campaigns in Germany, the controversy has done nothing much to hurt the reputation’s brand in the country. As of summer 2021, the Tesla Model 3 is considered Germany’s #1 electric vehicle. (Source: CleanTechnica)
It’s still possible to buy a Tesla in Germany easily using the company’s intuitive website. However, German Teslas are subject to the same Autopilot restrictions that are currently implemented on all European Teslas.
Tesla’s basic Autopilot features are legal to use in the United Kingdom. Like the rest of the European countries, the United Kingdom puts a mandatory restriction on Autopilot’s features, but the driving-assist features such as lane correction and traffic-aware cruise control are still legal and available.
As with any vehicle, it’s the responsibility of the driver to maintain control of the car at all times regardless of whether they’re using driver-assistance programs or not. Just like conventional cruise control that has been used in cars for decades, AI-assisted control is still the full responsibility of the person behind the wheel.
The British government announced in late April of 2021 that self-driving cars with Level 3 autonomy would be legal to drive, setting the path forward for drivers to take less and less legal responsibility for their vehicle under autonomous operation.
Currently, this standard doesn’t apply to Tesla’s models since they haven’t achieved higher than a Level 2 autonomy according to the Society of Automotive Engineers. Both European governments and Tesla expect that Tesla vehicles should break through from Level 2 to Level 3 autonomy within the next 1-2 years.
While the United Kingdom’s new laws on self-driving cars are promising for Tesla’s engineering ambitions moving forward, it doesn’t really help Tesla’s current position on the European market. Tesla enjoys high levels of popularity in Western Europe regardless of the restrictions placed on its autopilot features.
Tesla hasn’t had as much luck advertising in Europe as they have in North America, and their safety ratings aren’t as high in Europe either. While Tesla’s Model X maintains a 5/5 safety rating in the United States and is considered the safest SUV to ever hit an American road, European safety analysts had a different idea.
Instead of leading the pack in safety in Europe, Tesla only received a moderate rating from the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP). This was in harsh comparison to the high marks given to Audi, BMW, and Mercedes models that included driving-assistance programs. (Source: CNBC)
Like safety ratings in America, European safety ratings can have an effect on the market. Here are a few ways that the Euro NCAP can affect how Tesla sells in Europe:
- Insurance premiums: The safety ratings given by regulatory organizations like the NCAP help determine how high private car insurance premiums are to maintain a policy on a Tesla. Tesla insurance is already high, and a mediocre safety rating can make this cost go up even more.
- Consumer influence: The NCAP report is a report that consumers use to help them decide which vehicle to buy, and a bad rating for safety in the guide compared to other electric vehicle models has the potential to seriously hurt Tesla sales.
Right now in mid-2021, the Level 2 autonomy of Tesla’s electric vehicles puts it in a tight spot with European regulatory bodies. The cars can’t reliably self-drive well enough for European safety commissions to consider them autonomous, but Tesla has a bad habit of advertising the vehicles as if they were.
Elon Musk hasn’t stopped with the outrageous predictions and timelines for Tesla’s artificial intelligence, either. Here are a few of the predictions that Musk offered in January 2021 regarding Tesla’s Full Self-Driving capability and full autonomy:
- Tesla vehicles will hit Level 5 autonomy (full autonomy without the need for input from a human driver) by the end of 2021
- Full Self-Driving will be capable of self-driving to any destination, under any conditions
- Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system will be “at least 100% safer than a human driver” (Source: CNET)
Bringing Tesla from a Level 2 to Level 5 autonomy may not help Tesla’s position on the European market if fully autonomous self-driving cars remain illegal in European countries.
However, with the United Kingdom taking steps to make Level 3 autonomous vehicles legal, it’s only a matter of time before fully autonomous vehicles are legalized across the European Union. The faster that Elon Musk can get his Full Self-Driving program to actual full self-driving functionality, the sooner he can convince Europe that autonomous cars are safe.
One of the biggest technical challenges in bringing Tesla’s self-driving network from a Level 2 to a Level 5 autonomy is processing speed. This is a problem that Tesla is taking on with a supercomputer known as Dojo. This impressive supercomputer is neck-in-neck in competition with Fugaku for the title of fastest supercomputer in the world. (Source: Teslerati)
Dojo is a four-dimensional autopilot training system and artificial intelligence that is capable of automated processing with surround-view camerage footage. This technology is crucial for Tesla vehicles to have the computer processing power necessary for automating the operation of the vehicle in real-time.
The advantage of Dojo, first mentioned by Tesla’s Senior Director of Artificial Intelligence back in 2020, is that it’s been studying the neural networks of the Tesla fleet for several years. The data that the Dojo AI gleaned from studying driver data across the Tesla fleet made Dojo the backbone of the world’s most comprehensive semi-autonomous AI program.
Since Dojo is designed as a lightning-speed video processor, it makes sense that around the same time that Tesla leaned into using Dojo to build its neural networks, it also decided to abandon radar technology in its vehicles. (Source: TechCrunch) With the speed that Dojo is capable of analyzing and reacting to video data, the radar isn’t needed.
European drivers have access to Autopilot now in 2021 after losing access briefly in 2017, but restrictions on the Autopilot’s functions make it much less capable as a self-driving car.
At the end of the day, Europe isn’t comfortable with Tesla marketing its vehicles as self-driving when they aren’t capable of being controlled safely by a computer alone. But as Tesla’s technology continues to rocket towards full autonomy, there’s only so much the European government can do to stop its progress in the European self-driving car market.