Palo Alto, we have a problem: German court says Tesla’s “Autopilot” is false advertising

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Tesla banned from using the term “Autopilot” for its driver-assistance system (Model 3) – because the name is misleading

In its judgment of 14 July 2020 (case no. 33 O 14041/19), Munich’s regional court I (Landgericht München I) ruled that advertising claims made by Tesla in Germany amounted to misleading commercial practices under the country’s competition law, and prohibited Tesla from making the claims in any further advertising. The action against Tesla’s German subsidiary was brought by the private competition watchdog Zentrale zur Bekämpfung unlauteren Wettbewerbs e.V.

Driving a car: If you want something done right, do it yourself

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

 

The watchdog had taken issue with specific claims made during the Model 3 order process pertaining to technical specifications about the system on offer. The claims included:

  • Autopilot inklusive” (“Autopilot included”),
  • Volles Potenzial für autonomes Fahren” (“Full potential for autonomous driving”),
  • Navigieren mit Autopilot-Funktionalität” (“Navigate with autopilot functionality”) and
  • Herbeirufen: Ihr geparktes Auto findet sie Sie auf Parkplätzen und kommt zu Ihnen”. (“Summon: Your parked car will come find you anywhere in a parking lot.”)

According to the LG Munich, these advertising claims – when taken as a whole but also individually – would lead the average consumer to believe that the vehicles are technically capable of driving autonomously and that this is also legally permissible, which is not consistent with the reality.

Extract from Section 5 of the German Act against Unfair Competition (UWG):

Misleading commercial practices

(1) Unfairness shall have occurred where a person engages in a misleading commercial practice which is suited to causing the consumer or other market participant to take a transactional decision which he would not have taken otherwise. A commercial practice shall be regarded as misleading if it contains false statements or other information suited to deception regarding the following circumstances:

1. the main characteristics of the goods or services, such as availability, nature, execution, benefits, risks, composition, accessories, method or date of manufacture, delivery or provision, fitness for purpose, uses, quantity, specification, after-sale customer assistance, complaint handling, geographical or commercial origin, the results to be expected from their use, or the results or material features of tests carried out on the goods or services;

[…]

The court found:

  1. The advertised vehicles are in fact technically incapable of driving autonomously with the driver-assistance system, but rather meet “Level 2” of the autonomous driving classification system customary in the US and Europe – which always requires the full attention of the driver.
  2. However, naming the driver-assistance system “Autopilot” would by definition already suggest the possibility of completely autonomous driving.
  3. In addition, the term is inevitably associated with the English term autopilot, which is used in the field of aviation and refers to a system capable of completely controlling the aircraft without human intervention.
  4. The resulting deception, or in any event the risk of deception, was not eliminated by the reference at the end of the configuration page either, since this did not satisfy the legal requirements of sufficient transparency and clarity.
  5. Furthermore, the claims do not make it clear that autonomous driving is not permitted in the Federal Republic of Germany under the current Road Traffic Act (StVG), as this is not covered by the current regulations.

Taking into account the fact that the vehicles are sold as premium products with a hefty price tag, the court also found that the presumption of misleading advertising was, on the whole, proportionate.

It concluded that the claims would continue to be misleading to consumers as long as the legal framework for such functionality is not approved, and that any vehicle advertised with the functionality would not be able to drive completely autonomously.

Conclusion: Even Tesla can’t escape Germany’s strict competition law. It has no right to advertise fanciful functionality that doesn’t actually exist. A product catalogue is not a prospectus for investors: technical facts are what count, not commercial pipe dreams. Manufacturers of vehicles and other equipment would be well advised to be a little more realistic in their use of terms like “autonomous” and “autopilot”. For their part, buyers can cite misleading advertising as a reason to challenge and withdraw from purchase agreements, if an advertised feature was an important factor in their original decision to buy.

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