The Chinese Communist Party seems to have it out for Tesla. Following bans that prohibited the brand’s vehicles from parking themselves anywhere near a military base, China’s government has decided to recall over 285,000 Tesla automobiles sold in the country. We’ve also seen state-run media outlets begin branding the automaker as irresponsible and arrogant amid consumer protests some are concerned might have been staged for political reasons. Though it’s painfully hard to get inside the head of the CCP while you hope for concrete evidence of any of the above. Propagandizing and censorship have reached a level where just about everyone is having difficulties distinguishing up from down.
What is certain, however, is that Tesla’s regional volume has taken a noteworthy hit in 2021 despite sales more than doubling the previous year. While this may have nothing to do with the bad publicity and recall campaigns, we’re betting the latest example — which pertains to customers misusing Autopilot — won’t help matters.
Over the weekend, Bloomberg reported that the State Administration for Market Regulation had recalled 211,256 examples of the Model 3 and 38,599 examples of the Model Y manufactured inside China — in addition to 35,665 imported units. The government expressed concerns that the vehicles’ autopilot systems could be turned on automatically, suggesting that this could result in the vehicle acting in a way drivers wouldn’t anticipate. Tesla is complying with the safety recall and explained over Chinese social media that most of the repairs could be conducted via over-the-air updates.
The recall encompasses just about every Tesla model manufactured in China and is encouraging a lot of questions about how much of this is political after the CCP alleged its vehicles could be used for espionage. While there’s certainly room to entertain that scenario, Autopilot has fallen under similarly harsh criticism in the West and Tesla has been forced to issue a few recalls recently. The latest pertained to loose brake bolts and faulty seatbelts, though both were comparatively small in number.
Meanwhile, Tesla has been issuing apologies in China fairly regularly after the military placed enhanced scrutiny upon the company and protestors descended on the brand’s booth at the Shanghai Auto Show in April. The matter appeared to suppress sales temporarily, while local EV brands (e.g. Nio and Xpeng) gained ground. But things appeared to normalize by June.
Tesla has also been attempting to cater to the Chinese government by issuing routine assurances about Autopilot and the possibility of international spying. It even established a mainland data center to house and track information accumulated within China’s borders. We imagine the future will involve Tesla attempting to ingratiate itself with Chinese authorities in exchange for preferential treatment or the brand bucking that trend and being subject to the continued ire of the CCP.
That does not make some of China’s concerns about vehicular safety irrelevant, however. Automakers have played fast and loose with advanced driving aids and are now implementing insane safety protocols in an effort to transfer accountability. China’s problem with Autopilot may very well be genuine. But the recall details are vague and it’s quite clear that the government would prefer to see its own EV companies ascending rather than handing over domestic volume to an American firm. Exercise whatever amount of skepticism that feels the most comfortable.