China is at the forefront of autonomous driving technology. Its dynamic and successful car manufacturers are scurrying to develop the technologies that will make “robocars” a reality on its roads and the roads of the rest of the world. China is focused on seizing leadership in this industry not only because the country is the largest car market in the world and determined to take the lead in a crucial and game-changing technology, but also because of its under-publicized objective to cut road accidents. Every day, more than 700 people die on China’s road. 

The National Strategy: Autonomous Driving 

On December 27, 2016, the China State Council promulgated The National Strategy for the Information Age for the Thirteenth FiveYear Period1 , listing autonomous driving as a strategic cutting-edge technology. Autonomous driving has become part of the national plan.

Cutting-edge technologies always create challenges for lawmakers, both in deciding how to regulate the new technology and in deciding who shall bear the risks of the new technology. Autonomous driving is no exception. Indeed, given the risks that an autonomous vehicle could pose to the driver and to other road-users, the stakes in getting the law right are unusually high. 

Here, we provide a brief analysis of an ongoing case on the Tesla “autopilot” function, which is being heard in the Beijing Chaoyang District Court2 .

The Case

In January 2016, Gao Yaning, a 23-year-old man, crashed into a road sweeping truck with his Tesla Model S while using the “autopilot” function. Yaning was killed in the crash. Gao Jubin, Yaning’s father, claims that the car was using the “Autopilot function”.

Following the accident, in August 2016, Tesla changed the Chinese translation of “autopilot” from “autonomous driving” to “automatic assisted driving” on its official Chinese website.

Gao Jubin, the father of Gao Yaning, launched a legal action against Tesla China claiming the company exaggerated the capabilities of the “autopilot” function. He is seeking a public apology from Tesla and compensation of ¥10,000.

Screenshots from Tesla’s official Chinese website on August 11, 2016 (left), and on August 15, 2016 (right)3 .

Later, in February 2018, Tesla acknowledged that the “autopilot” function was activated at the time of the accident.

Key Issues for Deliberation 

The court is still considering whether the Tesla vehicle involved in the accident was subject to quality issues or even defects. For example, did the original Chinese translation of “autopilot” constitute a warning defect? 

While the case is not yet decided, it is clear that the choice of name in the commercial use of autonomous driving technology may expose auto manufacturers to significant legal risks in China. 

Key Takeaway

It is essential to carefully draft the contents related to autonomous driving in user manuals, advertisements, marketing materials generally and salesperson’s training materials, and to have these documents carefully checked by legal professionals before publishing.