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Electric vehicles roll off a NIO production line in Hefei, Anhui province. Photo: Bloomberg

Fatal crash involving NIO’s autopilot function sparks online war of words among Chinese electric car owners over safety

  • An online statement signed by 500 NIO owners defending the company sparked a backlash from motorists who claim the risks of the driver-assistance function are not made clear enough
  • It follows the death on August 12 of a 31-year-old entrepreneur, Lin Wenqin, while driving one of the company’s ES8 sport-utility vehicles
A war of words has broken out among owners of NIO cars after a fatal crash involving one of its vehicles sparked a fierce online debate about the safety of its driver-assistant system.
The outcry could create a stumbling block for the rise of Chinese electric vehicle (EV) start-ups that are emerging as major beneficiaries of Beijing’s efforts to achieve carbon neutrality.

It follows the death on August 12 of a 31-year-old entrepreneur, Lin Wenqin, while driving an ES8 sport-utility vehicle (SUV). The accident occurred while the autopilot function was turned on, NIO said in an obituary on its WeChat account. Local police are investigating the case while NIO is assisting in the process.

On Wednesday, a statement signed by 500 NIO owners defending the company’s products and reputation in the wake of the accident was posted in the chat room of NIO’s app.

“We are well aware that NIO’s NOP (navigation on pilot) is currently an assistant driving system, not an autonomous driving system or driverless system,” said the joint statement, in response to a growing chorus of online criticism levelled at the company. “NIO’s presentation and promotion of the NOP have not appeared to be confusing or misleading to us.”

The statement triggered a further outcry from thousands of NIO owners who believe the company had not provided enough clear information to customers about the NOP function and its limitations.

“I did not receive instructions from NIO in a professional manner that shed light on the driver help system during the purchase process,” said one owner.

“It is not possible for everyone to know that NOP is not for autonomous driving and to know how to use it. When I bought the car, NIO staff did not brief me about Nio Pilot and I was told that as long as I bought it, I could do autonomous driving,” said an ES6 owner in the chat room. The user was verified by NIO as a motorist who had owned one of its cars for seven months.

As of Thursday afternoon more than 7,000 people, many purporting to be owners, had posted on the app using the hashtag “objection to the joint statement” in Chinese.

NIO declined to comment when contacted by the Post.

Wang Liang, who bought an ES8 three years ago, is among those who endorsed the statement defending the carmaker.

“Different car users have different understandings and analysis of risk. It is our own responsibility to read the instructions thoroughly before launching the system,” Wang said, adding that he would be more cautious about using the NOP.

Typically, a driver-assistant system uses algorithms to analyse traffic data collected in real-time by onboard sensors and has “environment detection” capabilities. It can make decisions such as whether to accelerate past a slow-moving vehicle, but still requires human intervention.

Driver-assistant systems – a preliminary technology on the road to fully autonomous driving – have proved a major draw in China where a growing number of motorists are opting to buy intelligent EVs built by the likes of Tesla and NIO.

But concerns over their safety have arisen following several accidents involving the use of the technology.

“Consumers are not fully aware of the risks of autonomous driving and it is extremely risky to over-rely on autonomous driving when the technology is not mature enough,” said Cui Dongshu, secretary general of the China Passenger Car Association (CPCA).

“The car companies are responsible for telling the consumers that autonomous driving has not replaced manual driving and the driver should be able to take over control of the car at any time.”