Fascinating news out of China this morning. A report in the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong, suggests that certain functions in electric vehicles made by Tesla Motors (TSLA) may be illegal.
In question is Tesla’s Autopilot mode, which uses radar, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors to allow its Model S sedans to automatically adjust speed, change lanes, and park—no driver necessary. (To see Tesla’s Autopilot in action, watch this video of Fortune‘s Katie Fehrenbacher giving it a whirl.)
The feature, which debuted last month, has been largely welcomed with open arms. It has the ability to prevent a collision, for starters. It’s the latest step toward the fully autonomous vehicle. And it demonstrates how, thanks to algorithms and computing concepts like machine learning, your car could improve over time—even as we humans occasionally do not.
But like any good technology company, Tesla faces laws that aren’t as fast-moving as the technologies that power its vehicles. Tesla CEO Elon Musk says he wants Autopilot to roll out worldwide, but there are regulatory hurdles to jump in Europe and Asia.
One of those places is apparently Hong Kong. James To Kun-sun, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s transport panel, told the Morning Post that Autopilot must first be approved before drivers use it, citing the city’s Road Traffic Ordinance. If a driver got into an accident with Autopilot engaged, the lawmaker said, he or she could face prosecution and the possibility that his or her insurer would not cover costs from a collision.
The problem? Autopilot is already widely available, though it can be deactivated by the driver.
There aren’t many vehicles to which this applies. The Morning Post estimates that there are about 2,000 Tesla cars registered in Hong Kong but fewer that are compatible with version 7.0 of the company’s operating system, which includes the Autopilot feature.
But the incident is a good reminder that technology companies will continue to push the envelope, legally speaking, as they upend conventional ways of doing business. And all it may take is an over-the-air update.
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