Expert Concerns

Tesla Cars Unsafe, Says German Watchdog

Tesla Motors Headquarters
Accidents waiting to happen? Tesla Model S cars. Source: dpa

Tesla’s first generation self-driving electric cars may not be safe on public roads, according to a report by Germany’s central vehicle inspection agency.

The 4,000 Tesla Model S vehicles in Germany equipped with the original Autopilot system “are not built and equipped in such a way that their normal operation does not harm or more than unavoidably endanger anyone,” said the report by the FSD, or Fahrzeugsystemdaten. The Dresden-based company is tasked by German vehicle inspection organizations to improve the precision of inspections. Its head, Jürgen Bönninger, is essentially the bad conscience of all automakers.

Mr. Bönninger was unwilling to comment on his 40-page report, which he said was not intended for public consumption. But Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority, or KBA, which has seen the report, has had concerns about the autopilot system for some time.

“The Federal Motor Transport Authority continues to maintain that the ‘Autopilot’ used by Tesla is purely a driver assistance system,” the transport ministry said on its behalf. In October, the KBA sent a letter to all 4,237 Tesla owners warning them of this fact and that Autopilot should only “be operated with the driver’s constant attention.”

When contacted, Tesla stressed that Autopilot is a driver assistance system and that it has received the KBA’s official permission to use the term.

It is questionable whether the updates are sufficiently regulated before acting on engine control systems.

The US tech firm has recently became the most valuable automaker in the United States, and its share price continues to rise. But questions are mounting about the reliability of its cars following recent recalls of its Model S and Model X vehicles over problems with seatbelts and parking brakes. To make matters worse, Autopilot system head Chris Latter, recruited from Apple, announced his resignation last week.

Tesla’s wireless technology is also making regulators nervous. Like smartphones, its cars receive regular updates, but with one important difference: The updates are automatic to a car’s engine control without being checked by a German government agency. It is questionable whether the updates are sufficiently regulated before acting on engine control systems.

With Teslas now available on the second-hand market, the KBA is also worried that its safety warnings will not be passed on to new owners. In its October letter, it asked original owners to send them details if they sold on their vehicles. But such measures seem relatively ineffectual.

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The Federation of German Consumer Organizations is calling for clear rules. “We need a standardized procedure on how the information needs to be processed and released,” said representative Marion Jungbluth. A central authority should be established to “provide information to the effect that the tested and approved update meets the applicable requirements,” she added.

Tesla has its vehicles licensed in the Netherlands, where the Dutch vehicle authority, the RDW, is the sole authority. Under EU law, this means the cars are effectively licensed for use in the whole bloc, legally bypassing German regulators. Both the RDW and Tesla insist that there is no lack of regulation of new software versions. “If the change affects model approval, a physical test is performed. And if this requires driving the vehicle, the vehicle is driven,” said the RDW.


Jan Keuchel is a Handelsblatt correspondent covering investigations and the German legal system. To contact the author:

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