'Hands-free' driving in Hong Kong: Tesla begins road-testing 'autopilot' mode, government yet to approve, SCMP takes it for a spin

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 7:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 12:01pm

“It looks like there’s a ghost,” says the passenger as the car’s steering wheel starts to rotate by itself.

Thirty seconds later, the vehicle emits two beeping sounds and a message – “Autopark complete” – appears on the dashboard monitor.

Hong Kong motorists have begun testing US company Tesla’s latest software update, which launched worldwide on Saturday, even though the Hong Kong government says it has yet to approve it.

Watch: Can Tesla's new 'autopilot' system work in crowded Hong Kong? We did a test drive

In “Autopilot” mode, the electric Tesla Model S can automatically change lanes, change speed in traffic, steer within lanes and park itself with the help of radar, cameras and ultrasonic sensors.

Although the latest 7.0 version is a step forward in self-driving technology, drivers are still required to keep their hands on the steering wheel.

A week after the beta version was launched in the US, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the company had received regulatory approval for the technology in 17 places worldwide including Hong Kong, but not yet in Japan. 

READ MORE: Hong Kong now has highest density of Tesla superchargers in the world

However, a Transport Department spokeswoman told the Post on Friday that it had not received an application from Tesla regarding the software update.

A Tesla spokeswoman said this was not necessary since the “Autopilot” feature was a “functional update” and not a change in hardware. The spokeswoman added that the software update was “100 per cent EU compliant” after a Dutch statutory body gave it the green light on October 24. 

She said the approval meant that it was in line with European traffic laws and this was identical to Hong Kong standards.

The Transport Department told the Post in an email yesterday that  it had reminded Tesla that an application for approval was required and  that it had approached the company for clarification. The transport authority did not make clear whether it would be illegal for Hong Kong drivers to use the new features without its approval.

The government was urged to clarify the matter. “As a responsible government, you must make your stance clear whether it’s lawful or unlawful to drive such a car,” said lawmaker James To Kun-sun, who is a member of the Legislative Council’s transport panel.

READ MORE: Why let Tesla take it all? Hong Kong a perfect testing ground for China-developed electric car

He added that the existing legal framework did not cover autonomous or semi-autonomous driving and the government should enact new legislation to accommodate new technology.

Electric vehicles are multiplying in Hong Kong. From less than 100 at the end of 2010, there were almost 3,000 on the roads as of last month, according to the Environmental Protection Department.

Tesla vehicles account for almost two-thirds of electric vehicles in the city. Charging stations are located within a 20-minute drive for most owners – one of the highest densities in the world.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has voiced support for self-driving technology, writing in a recent blog that even though Hong Kong was not yet ready for fully autonomous driving, it could look into developing driving assistance technology.

But approval rests with the Transport Department. Tesla drivers in Hong Kong say certain features – such as internet browsing functions on the dashboard – have been banned for safety reasons.

“The government takes a very conservative approach when looking at existing laws, while other governments figure out a way to let it happen,” said Charles Mok, lawmaker for the information technology sector.

Mok said Tesla drivers in Australia were allowed to browse the internet on the car’s screen as long as the vehicle was not moving.

He warned that the government’s legal restrictions put the city in danger of falling behind other countries in terms of innovation and that it would eventually drive away entrepreneurs.

For now, local Tesla drivers are eager to try out the new functions while they can.

“I always tell other drivers that I can’t wait to get my hands off the steering wheel,” says Locky Law, 34, the Tesla owner representative at Charged Hong Kong, an organisation aimed at promoting electric vehicles in the city.

"But in reality, we still need our hands on the steering wheel as advised by the manual," Law cautions.

Another Tesla driver, Mark Webb-Johnson, says autopilot will make driving much smoother given the constant stop-and-go traffic and changing speed limits in Hong Kong as the car can adjust automatically.

However, despite all the hype over its auto-steering functions, one user is sceptical about its feasibility on the city’s roads, given that the company designed such features for use on highways.

“I’m keen to try it out in Hong Kong, but I’m not sure how practical it is. We don’t have many highways and we have lots of multi-layer traffic, whereas US roads have more of a grid format,” says Kendrick Shih, 29, a Tesla Model S owner of four months.

“But it’s just like the new iPhone – you always want to try the newest thing.”