- Tesla is eyeing next month for a wider release of its “Full Self-Driving” beta software.
- The system is still buggy and sometimes gets drivers into dangerous situations, videos show.
- Neither the software nor Tesla’s Autopilot make its cars fully autonomous, despite the company’s marketing.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When Tesla beamed out a prototype version of its “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) technology to select Tesla owners in October, videos of the driver-assistance system fumbling normal traffic situations – from failing to follow road rules to nearly steering into parked cars and cement barricades – flooded the web.
Now Elon Musk wants any Tesla owner that has paid for FSD to have access to the beta next month. But clips cropping up online continue to cast doubt on whether the technology is safe enough to test on public streets.
A March 12 video posted by Youtube user AI Addict shows a Model 3 running FSD beta version 8.2 clumsily navigating around downtown San Jose at dusk. With FSD switched on, the vehicle nearly crashes into a median, attempts to drive down railroad tracks, and almost plows down a row of pylons separating the road from a bike lane. All of those dicey situations were narrowly avoided only because the driver quickly took over control.
In another clip posted March 18, Model Y owner Chuck Cook tests the beta’s ability to make unprotected left turns. The software performs admirably a few times, waiting until a break in traffic to cross the three-lane road. More than once, however, Cook has to slam on the brakes to avoid coasting into oncoming traffic. And on his last go, the Tesla nearly drives headlong into a pickup truck with a boat in tow.
FSD testing videos have become an entire genre on YouTube. Many of them depict cars comfortably navigating lane changes, four-way stops, and busy intersections. Yet the buggy clips illustrate the potential dangers of letting amateur drivers experiment with a prototype software on public roads.
Tesla is using its owners as “guinea pigs for the technology,” Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, told Insider. “And what’s much more concerning, quite frankly, is they’re using consumers, bystanders, other passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists as lab rats for an experiment for which none of these people signed up.”
FSD – a $US10,000 ($13,067) add-on option – is a more advanced version of Tesla’s Autopilot, its standard driver-assistance feature that enables cars to maintain their lane and keep up with highway traffic using a system of cameras and sensors. FSD currently augments Autopilot with features like self-parking, traffic light and stop sign recognition, and the ability to take highway on-ramps and exits.
The limited beta software in question adds on a capability critical for any system that aims to be called fully self driving: the ability to navigate local streets, which, as opposed to highways, have a much more complex driving environment that includes left-hand turns across traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, and the like.
Even before it introduced the FSD beta last fall, Tesla faced scrutiny over Autopilot and its potential for abuse. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed earlier this month that it is investigating Autopilot’s role in 23 recent crashes, including multiple where Teslas barreled into stopped emergency vehicles. Over the years, numerous videos have surfaced on social media of drivers sleeping with Autopilot turned on or otherwise misusing the feature.
To make things safer, Levine said, Tesla could begin using vehicles’ internal cameras to monitor driver attention as many other carmakers do. Currently, Tesla only monitors whether a driver’s hand is on the steering wheel, while other systems, like GM’s Super Cruise, track a driver’s eyes to make sure they are paying attention to the road.
Changing the names of Autopilot and FSD – which are misleading since neither technology is autonomous and both require constant driver attention – would be a good start as well, Levine said.
“The insistence on utterly hyperbolic description really undermines any sort of good-faith effort to present this technology in a way that is going to not present an unreasonable risk,” he said.
For Tracy Pearl, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma who researches self-driving technology, the main problem isn’t so much the quality of Tesla’s driver-assistance systems, but rather the way drivers interact with them.
Although advanced driver-assistance suites like Tesla’s could make cars safer when used properly, research has shown that drivers on the whole don’t understand their capabilities and limitations, Pearl said. Moreover, drivers’ attention tends to wander when those features are switched on. Tesla exacerbates these issues by marketing its tech in ways that overstate the cars’ abilities, but the information gap between manufacturers and drivers extends to other carmakers as well, she said.
Problems with the way driver-assistance systems are marketed and the way drivers interact with them are heightened where a beta system is concerned, she said.
“I think calling it ‘Full Self Driving’ is not just deceptive, I think it is an invitation for people to misuse their cars,” she said.
Tesla, though it consistently claims that self-driving cars are right around the corner, acknowledges that both Autopilot and FSD require constant driver attention and aren’t fully autonomous. Still, it’s much more blunt with regulators than it is with the general public.
In a series of emails to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles in late 2020, a Tesla lawyer said that FSD can’t handle certain driving scenarios and that it will never make cars drive themselves without any human input.
Tesla also makes an effort to inform users about the risks of using a system that isn’t completely ready for prime time. In a disclaimer beta testers received with the October update, Tesla urged drivers to use the software “only if you will pay constant attention to the road, and be prepared to act immediately.
“It may do the wrong thing at the worst time,” Tesla said.
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment for this story.