L2? L2.99? China and the U.S. are both failing to regulate self-driving cars

Marketing language often refers to the future, not the present — and drivers in both countries are getting confused, and sometimes hurt.

A NIO ES6 electric vehicle on display.

While auto industry disruptors are known for taking the world one step closer to self-driving cars, the actual cars being sold are still far from fully autonomous.

Photo: VCG via Getty Images

The tech worlds of the United States and China are usually operating on different timelines: Either the Americans lead in one field or the Chinese lead in another. But this past week, the two countries have found themselves in sync on one issue: the failure of proclaimed self-driving cars to … actually drive themselves safely.

Auto industry disruptors who have made a name for their pioneering autopilot systems are being questioned in both countries about whether these systems are causing severe travel accidents. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just opened an investigation into Tesla's Autopilot feature following 11 traffic accidents that happened in a specific night driving scenario. In China, NIO, one of the leading Chinese autonomous vehicle makers, got grilled in the media after a fatal car crash that happened when NIO's autopilot system was at work.

In both countries, the controversies and media attention go back to the discrepancy between dream and reality: While these new auto brands are known for taking the world one step closer to self-driving cars, the actual cars being sold are still far from fully autonomous. Beijing and Washington are increasingly asking whether these car makers are promising too much and misleading drivers into over-dependence on their vehicles.

For now, neither Chinese or American auto regulators have found the answer. It's the drivers of Tesla, NIO and many more smart car brands who are shouldering the cost of this still-futuristic dream.

Pick a number between (L)2 and (L)3

On Aug. 12, 31-year-old entrepreneur and investor Lin Wenqin died in a highway traffic accident in southeast China. Photos of the scene show that the NIO ES8 that Lin was driving, a high-end SUV model comparable to Tesla's Model X, crashed into a heavy-duty vehicle parked on the highway. According to an obituary released by Lin's friends and family two days later, Lin's vehicle was on NIO's "Navigate on Pilot self driving mode" when the accident happened.

The possibility that a self-driving system is to blame for the accident immediately caught social media's attention. To date, the police haven't updated the public on their investigation, and the company NIO said in an announcement that it won't release any information before the police inquiry is finished. But when answering a question from the Chinese publication Beijing News, NIO emphasized that "NOP is still an assisted driving feature. It should not be seen as a self-driving feature." NIO didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.

The question is whether the victim, and the drivers of NIO and other autonomous vehicles, know the difference.

The United States and China have similar standards to define how "autonomous" a vehicle is. Cars are grouped into six categories, from L0, where the driver controls everything, to L5, where the car performs all tasks. Today, the Japanese brand Honda boasts the only mass-produced model that has reached L3, the Honda Legend, a critical milestone that frees the driver from watching the road.

But the clarity on paper doesn't translate well into reality, especially when it's not always in the car manufacturer's interest to admit how limited their self-driving technology is.

The many Chinese car manufacturers that have yet to reach L3 have focused on how to make their assisted driving technology sound more appealing than their competitors'. As a result, they have marketed their cars using terms like "L2 Plus" (BYD), "L2.5" (Jetour), "L2.75" (XPeng) and even "L2.99" (Chery).

The numbering system is confusing, but it gets even worse when companies are coming up with acronyms. Between NIO's NOP (Navigate on Pilot) and NAD (NIO Autonomous Driving), Tesla's NAP (Navigate on Autopilot), and XPeng's NGP (Navigation Guided Pilot), it's become hard to tell which technology is more advanced.

In the United States, Tesla has gotten into plenty of trouble for calling its Autopilot system "Full Self-Driving." In China, other car brands have deployed the same tactics to, purposefully or not, blur the boundaries between assisted driving and self-driving. The most egregious example, according to Xing Lei, an auto industry analyst and former chief editor at the Beijing-based China Auto Review, is when the Shanghai-based brand Weltmeister publicly advertised in April that it had "the first mass-produced self-driving car in the country," equating to L4. But later it was revealed that technology was only available when the car was parking.

Blurred lines

Perhaps the bigger problem is the gulf between assisted driving — what an L1 or L2 vehicle actually offers — and "self-driving" or "autonomous driving."

After the recent highway accident, Li Xiang, founder and CEO of Chinese car brand Li Auto, called on the industry to refrain from using the word "自动" (which means "self" or "autonomous") in its marketing before reaching the L4 stage.

On paper, NIO seems to have done a decent job explaining its technology. According to Chinese publication LatePost, in NIO's 100,000-character-long driver's manual for its ES8 model, it only says "self-driving" once, and that's to warn that autopilot does not equate to self-driving. On its website, the word also never appeared when describing its currently available models.

"I've talked to three or four salespersons of Tesla China and two salespersons of NIO," a Shenzhen-based Tesla owner who wishes to stay anonymous told Protocol. "When I asked them if they have self-driving cars, they all seemed well-trained and told me it is assisted driving, not self-driving."

But some buyers aren't content with NIO's efforts to teach the difference. In a discussion forum on NIO's app, one buyer nicknamed "the unfillable stomach" wrote: "I can tell you loud and clear that it's impossible" for everyone to understand NIO's autopilot system correctly. "At least when I bought the car, I was told by everybody that Navigate on Pilot gives you self-driving."

Drivers clearly differ in their views. Soon after the accident, 500 NIO owners signed an open letter in support of the company, pledging the company has done a good job teaching them the differences between assisted driving and autonomous driving. But then came the backlash, with other NIO drivers starting a hashtag "Reject the Open Letter" on NIO's app.

Customers often want to think that their cars are more powerful than they actually are. "After autonomous vehicle companies exaggerate their capabilities, some consumers, especially those who are young and chasing after new technologies, may try to show off or play with the system," Xing told Protocol, "and that's very dangerous."

What, me regulate?

Evidently, neither Chinese nor American regulators have a handle on this problem. On the same day of the fatal accident, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Informational Technology published a new regulation that asked autonomous car makers to ensure there's a safety mechanism to detect whether the driver's hands are still on the wheel. But the U.S. and China are both on a blank page when it comes to determining whether auto companies are exaggerating their technologies, and to what extent that should be forbidden.

Meanwhile, car makers continue to depict a great driverless future, even if that's not yet offered by a particular product they currently sell. While NIO has been careful about not calling its current pilot system "self-driving," it freely sprinkles the word in when describing its latest technology, NAD, a more sophisticated system that will be released on NIO cars in 2022. Once released, NAD will bring about "a safer and more relaxing autonomous driving experience from point A to point B," the website says.

As always, the devil — or in this case, the reality — hides in the fine print. At the bottom of the NAD page, a line reads, in light grey color and smaller text: "NAD in the description is designed for driver assistance purposes only and cannot fully replace driver's control or handle all possible traffic, weather and road conditions."


A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.


The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.


Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well-established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories