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The Mystery of Tesla’s Autopilot-less European Model 3

There is no type approval process for automated driving systems in Europe. So why doesn't Tesla's European Model 3 seem to have the Autopilot option?

There are recent reports that Tesla’s “Autopilot” isn’t type-approved in Europe, and therefore absent in the first batch fresh off the boat in Belgium. In the EU and in many countries throughout the world, a valid type-approval is essential for the legal operation of a vehicle. The reports of Tesla’s AWOL Autopilot not only caused an uproar on Twitter. The allegedly absent approval also is the source of intensive puzzlement in the auto industry, for one simple reason: There is no EU type approval (yet) covering self-driving technology.

For this article, I could simply draw on my long and occasionally painful experience with the subject matter. It could be outdated, especially when it comes to a both fluid and impenetrable set of EU rules. I therefore called upon a number of homologation experts in the EU, and elsewhere. Not wanting to discuss another OEM, the sources have quested anonymity, and it has been granted.

To a man (and a woman) all experts told me: “There is no type approval for self-driving cars.” Neither in the EU, nor in the U.S., China, or elsewhere. Read the EU regulations, try to sift through all amendments and annexes, and you will find no regulation covering the type-approval of self-driving cars.

You probably begin to wonder how a EU that regulates even the shape of a banana could possibly not have rules for stuff the world has obsessed about for years. Not to worry, it is just a matter of time, I am told. Several working groups, in Europe and at the United Nations, are discussing regulations covering self-driving cars, with results expected in 2020, or more likely 2021. As long as no type-approval for self-driving cars exists, exemptions for self-driving cars will be carved out of traffic laws.

But what about the current Model3?

The experts interviewed were not familiar with the Model 3 type approval, and being experts, they didn’t want to hazard a guess. Some voiced the opinion that regulatory problems with the Model 3 “Autopilot” should be unlikely, simply because Tesla’s Model S and Model X have received EU type approval when equipped with the same Autopilot module. 

I don’t give up easily, and taken by the hand by one of the world’s top homologation experts, I traversed the thicket of laws, regulations, amendments and annexes, until my guide pointed to vague references to the technology, buried deep in the United Nation’s Regulation No. 79, covering “the approval of vehicles with regard to steering equipment.” This regulation has been included into EU type approval regulations, and compliance is mandatory. 

At first glance, this regulation specifically does not allow “systems, which do not require the presence of a driver, [and which] have been defined as ‘Autonomous Steering Systems’.”  No soup for you. 

But maybe a cookie:

UN Regulation No. 79 allows “Advanced Driver Assistance Steering Systems” for functions such as Lane Departure Avoidance, lane changes (when initiated by the driver) or systems that “assist the driver in maneuvering the vehicle at low speed in confined spaces.” According to the interpretation of my expert, the current rules allow autonomous steering only at speeds below 10 kilometers per hour, i.e. in an automated parking situation.

Not being familiar with the EU version of the Model 3, my expert guide refused to give an opinion whether the Model 3’s Autopilot would comply or collide with these regulations, but he encouraged me to hazard a guess. 

Tesla’s “Standard Autopilot” comes with automatic emergency braking, along with frontal and side collision warning, and this should easily pass Regulation 79. However, if the Model 3 “Enhanced Autopilot” indeed comes with the features advertised on Tesla’s website, then there is potential for rule breakage. A car that, as promised by Tesla’s website, “takes over, steers itself,” a car that “automatically changes the lane,” a car that “masters freeway exchanges and exits autonomously” could collide with UN regulation 79, and by extension with the EU type approval regime. The final decision would have to be made by the EU regulator, and/or by an accredited technical service, in Tesla’s case RDW in the Netherlands.

Bottom line, Tesla’s Autopilot cannot collide with a type approval for autonomous cars that doesn’t exist in Europe. The Autopilot has, however, the potential of a conflict with provisions deep down in the United Nations regulations on steering.

Russ Mitchell, who covers Tesla for the Los Angeles Times, cited an RDW spokesman last Thursday as saying that “at this moment the autopilot is not part of the original Type Approval of the Tesla Model 3.” It wasn’t clear which of the two Autopilot versions this referred to. A day later, Mitchell received a sibylline email from the Dutch regulator, stating that “today the approval of Tesla’s Model 3 has been published with ‘Autosteer’ added.”  Mitchell did not receive amplification, neither from RDW, nor from Tesla. Oddly, those who scour the pertinent United Nation’s Regulation No. 79 will find no mention of “autosteer.”  Should  “autosteer” refer for Tesla’s lane keeping functionality, then that would be permissible as what the rules call “Automatically commanded steering function (ACSF) Category B1.”

Also on Friday, Bloomberg told its terminal subscribers that Autopilot (which one?) gained “Approval for Autopilot in Europe.” Again oddly, this hot news did not find its way into Bloomberg’s news service and website. At the time of this writing, RDW’s database of type approvals shows no change to the three entries covering Tesla’s Model 3.  

Should features of Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot conflict with the rules, Tesla would be in trouble way beyond Europe. United Nation regulations are observed in countries all around the world, except for the U.S.A. Countries or regions are free to adopt any of the more than 140 UN regulations, and therefore, Regulation 79 is not automatically in effect in every country that subscribes to the UN rules, but it is in many. Should Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot be held in violation in a Europe with a leading role in the UN regulatory framework, it could have a ripple-effect around the world. Tesla’s solution could be to re-submit a stripped-down, make that nEUtered, version of the Enhanced Autopilot, and it would have to studiously avoid adding the nEUtered features later Over-The-Air. Tesla’s European fans would not be happy.

OTA updates themselves are an even bigger can of worms. As intimated in a previous article, over-the-air updates can conflict with one of the core tenets of UN and EU type approval, namely that a type-approved component may not be altered without a new type approval. As one of the experts told me, “if the software update concerns something that is regulated by Type Approval, an OEM has to get an update to a Type Approval before pushing the software update.” This matter also is in flux, and I was urged to seek the advice of an OTA homologation expert, which I shall do. Stay tuned for more legalese.