Tesla faces a ban on selling its full self-driving technology in Britain under new driverless car laws, in a setback to Elon Musk’s plans for millions of robot-driven vehicles.
The Department for Transport will prevent carmakers from describing vehicles as “self-driving” or “driverless” unless their systems are approved under changes coming as soon as next year.
Blocking the technology’s sale in Britain would be the latest blow for Mr Musk’s Tesla, which has faced multiple lawsuits and investigations over the safety of its driver assistance technology.
Tesla has for years charged motorists around the world thousands of pounds for an optional “full self-driving” upgrade, but has only activated a test version of the technology in North America.
Despite its name, the feature requires constant monitoring from drivers and is described as an “assistance” system, meaning that it would be unlikely to meet the high bar for government approval under its upcoming Automated Vehicles Bill.
Last week, government notes on how it plans to enforce the bill said the terms “self-drive”, “self-driving”, “drive itself”, “driverless” and “automated vehicle” would be regulated under efforts to prevent the “misleading marketing” of the technology.
It said restrictions on how carmakers can market their systems will be the first part of the new regime to come into effect, and will start being enforced in 2024 or 2025, soon after the Automated Vehicles Bill is signed into law.
Tesla’s less-advanced Autopilot system, which allows cars to maintain their speed in traffic, follow roads, and change lanes, would not be covered under the marketing rules.
Legal experts said the proposals mean Tesla would face difficulties in continuing to market the technology in the UK under government plans to more closely regulate driverless vehicles.
Tesla’s $742bn (£589bn) valuation, making it the world’s most valuable carmaker, has been partly predicated on Mr Musk’s long-running promises that its cars will not require human intervention.
“It’s really the difference between Tesla being worth a lot of money or worth basically zero,” he said earlier this year.
Tesla has sold cars with “Full Self-Driving Capability” since 2016, and charges £6,800 to drivers in the UK. It says the feature may not be activated until it is approved by regulators.
Brian Wong, a specialist transport lawyer at Burges Salmon, said: “Terms like ‘full self-driving’ would be problematic if vehicles have not been approved as automated vehicles so Tesla and, indeed other [manufacturers], would need to take heed.
“This is one of the biggest concerns shared by all, including those in the industry, about automated vehicles: public confusion about the functionality of vehicles that are not approved as automated.”
Tesla has been hiring test drivers in the UK and Europe to trial its more sophisticated self-driving systems, in what has been seen as a sign that the company is preparing to launch the technology overseas.
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Thousands of Tesla owners in the US and Canada have been offered access to a “beta” version of the technology since 2020, but Mr Musk has faced setbacks in introducing it in other countries.
“In the US, things are legal by default,” he said last year. “In Europe, they’re illegal by default. So, we have to get approval beforehand. Whereas, in the US, you can kind of do it on your own cognizance, more or less.”
Mr Musk has repeatedly made ambitious pledges about driverless car technology, promising that a Tesla would be able to drive across the US without human intervention as early as 2017.
“Obviously, in the past, I’ve been overly optimistic about this,” he told investors last month.
Tesla has faced a string of investigations from government agencies in the US over Autopilot and Full Self-Driving. Last month it won the first US trial over allegations that its Autopilot system had led to a death on the road.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “Safety is at the heart of our AV Bill, which is why we’re introducing new regulations to prohibit misleading marketing practices, as recommended by the Law Commission. This will help protect consumers and the public by ensuring only vehicles that meet rigorous standards can be marketed as such.”