Self-Driving Teslas Can’t Duck the US-China Silicon Curtain

What’s the value of a good story? $82 billion, to judge by Tesla Inc.’s 15% share price gain Monday.

That’s the effect of news that the company had won tentative approval to roll out its driver-support technology in China, following a surprise meeting Sunday with the Premier Li Qiang.

Trying to decipher the entrails of Elon Musk’s gnomic pronouncements is never an easy task. Is he planning to release a cut-price Model 2 sedan next, or a robotaxi? Is he in favor of action on climate change, or does he think it’s communism? Does he even care that much about making cars these days, when there is so much fun to be had posting memes and launching rockets?

The lightning visit to China at least clarifies the narrative on the last point, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas: “Even the smallest gesture of commitment (an unannounced trip to Beijing) has elevated meaning here, combating concerns over Musk’s commitment to Tesla.”

The difficulty comes when you dig beneath the vaporware of stories and ambitions, and look at what has actually changed for Tesla. It’s rather less than meets the eye.

You might not know it from the way Musk talks, but Tesla’s driver-assistance system — misleadingly, and dangerously, dubbed “Full Self-Driving” or FSD — has been falling behind the competition of late. Mercedes-Benz Group AG is already selling vehicles in the US that allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road in low-risk conditions.