U.S. regulator says self-driving vehicles not ready for prime time as Tesla inks China deal

In China this weekend, Elon Musk snagged the biggest green light yet for Full Self-Driving mode, the advanced software that Tesla claims equips its EVs to drive themselves almost anywhere with minimal human intervention.

Tesla’s market performance has been underwhelming lately, and news of a major deal to offer autonomous driving in Earth’s largest and most competitive EV market (equal to about 60% globally) could help Musk win shareholder approval for his controversial $56 billion pay package that was nullified in January by a Delaware court that declared the sum “unfathomable.”

Both China and Tesla came to the table with demands: Tesla needed access to China’s high-res maps so its cars can navigate roads. Regulators in Beijing wanted to ensure Tesla was being properly cautious with Chinese data it collected. By the end of their visit, Musk had reportedly negotiated a preliminary deal poised to pave the way for Full Self-Driving in the country. Late Sunday, he posted a photo on X of him and Chinese premier Li Qiang, the country’s No. 2 official after Xi Jinping.

The agreement, however, points to a bigger underlying question about self-driving technology’s future. The Tesla-China deal marks one of the most momentous, but nonetheless comes on the heels of other big-name recent partnerships: Mercedes-Benz’s with Nvidia, BMW’s last May with Amazon Web Services and Qualcomm. Each partnership is declared the most groundbreaking yet, but at the same time, public safety authorities are finding more reasons to press the brakes on self-driving cars. (Thankfully, just figuratively—one of the Cybertruck’s pedals was just recalled because it can get “stuck.”)

Tesla’s latest announcement came just days after the U.S. agency that regulates cars—the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA)—opened yet another new investigation into the company’s Autopilot feature, effectively its stripped-down version of Full Self-Driving. In a report published Friday, which spans three years, regulators declared Autopilot has a “critical safety gap” that was responsible for or contributed to at least 467 collisions, 13 of them being fatal. The context for that number makes it sound even more dire: For this report, the NHTSA looked at 956 Tesla crashes in which Autopilot was believed to be activated, making it a causal factor 49% of the time.

The NHTSA blamed a “weak driver engagement system” and warned that despite Autopilot requiring human supervision, people behind the wheel struggle to pay adequate attention to the road while it’s engaged. The car prompts them to through chimes and other “nags,” but apparently these didn’t do the trick in at least 49% of crashes. The NHTSA said as a result, it’s opened an additional probe into whether Tesla is trying hard enough to fix Autopilot’s flaws. In December, Tesla issued a supposed software update to fix defects that had been identified by the agency. But the NHTSA admitted it has doubts, since Teslas continue to crash on Autopilot—including as recently on April 19, when a Seattle-area driver killed a motorcyclist.

Then, the day before the NHTSA’s Tesla report, it released the results of a different investigation focusing on Ford’s hands-free driving technology for Mustang Mach-Es and several Lincolns, unfortunately dubbed “BlueCruise.” Regulators began probing the software after two deaths were linked to it this year alone. Their report noted Fords in BlueCruise mode also had a pattern of hitting stationary objects, including parked cars.

In recent months, Ford CEO Jim Farley has spent considerable time talking up BlueCruise. He called it “some awesome tech” in late February, and explained how it’s become a solid moneymaker for the company. “BlueCruise just passed 150 million miles of hand-free use, but more importantly, the growth is up 25% quarter over quarter, and the gross margins for BlueCruise are at 70-plus percent,” he said.

These two NHTSA investigations follow another self-driving partnership not mentioned above—in fact, the most infamous of them all: GM’s with Cruise, the autonomous vehicle startup it acquired fully in 2016. Cruise suspended operations in October and its CEO resigned after its technology spent several years inflicting a series of Silicon Valley-caliber mishaps on Bay Area residents, from blocking fire trucks en route to emergency scenes to rear-ending city buses to, at one point, idling in a pack of 20 at a busy San Francisco intersection for more than two hours.

The NHTSA’s crackdown on self-driving has been occurring as China welcomes the technology with open arms (just with provisos for Western companies hoping to jump into the promising market). The Chinese agreement might mark Tesla’s best odds of getting self-driving onto roads; Musk and the NHTSA have a tense relationship that reportedly included him yelling and screaming at agents while not always doing what they ask.

The move tracks with Tesla’s previous moves in China. It boasts its EVs aren’t merely a technological feat, but one of upstanding ethics too—it promises shareholders that no materials are sourced from “suppliers that include forced labor or human trafficking in any form.” Yet mounting evidence suggests Tesla does indeed purchase metal from Xinjiang, the region known for forced labor camps, including from companies with a record of helping the Chinese Communist Party move Uyghurs into factory towns as part of what the state labels “labor transfers.” Tesla denies all ties to forced labor but has ignored most media requests for detailed proof. Meanwhile, Musk has continued to court Xi Jinping and China, last drawing criticism for opening a Tesla showroom in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, weeks after the U.S. sanctioned China for human rights abuses in the region.