Weekly Brief: Let’s Pray Tesla ‘Full Self-Driving’ not Hope-and-Hit

Tesla released its “Full Self-Driving” software last week, achieving an important, yet controversial milestone for the carmaker and the AV industry.

The update makes Autopilot more autonomous than ever before. It can now function on busy city and residential streets in addition to the more traditional self-driving proving grounds of onramps and highways. Autopilot FSD can also make right and left turns at intersections, accelerate past slower vehicles and automatically stop at red lights and stop signs. It can autopark at the tap of a button.

Tesla has only released Full Self-Driving (FSD) to a limited group of customers in its Early Access Program for the time being. CEO Elon Musk stressed that the technology is still in beta mode and that drivers in the Early Access Program are providing real-world data to help Tesla improve its new four-dimensional, artificial intelligence architecture. The software “may do the wrong thing at the worse time”, the company warned drivers in the Early Access Program.

Musk expects the architecture and the software to improve rapidly in the coming weeks. By year’s end, he says FSD will be available in hundreds of thousands of vehicles; any customer who has purchased the FSD package will become part of the largest self-driving fleet on the planet.

No carmaker has been in Tesla’s position before. The next few months are, therefore, loaded with potential but also fraught with immense risk for the carmaker. In the absence of strict regulations, there is nothing to stop Tesla from doing this, nor is there much to protect it if things go awry. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which is headlined by the likes of Waymo, Ford, GM Cruise, Volvo, Argo AI, Uber and Lyft, criticized the decision by Tesla last week, saying that the technology is not truly autonomous and insufficiently tested. It could easily give the whole industry a black eye, much the way Uber did when one of its pilot AVs struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018.

The risk is equally high for the general public. Tesla is beta testing an unproven software with drivers who are not professionally trained and who have a habit of flaunting their Tesla exploits on social media. The Early Access Program doesn’t require any expertise of customers. To the contrary, the only thing that qualifies these drivers to beta test Autopilot FSD is their enthusiasm for Tesla and their willingness to shell out $8,000 to participate. Musk closed down the Early Access Program once his company dropped the price of FSD to encourage more people to sign up.

As the Uber accident demonstrated, even professionally trained safety engineers can get distracted or be tempted into overly trusting their technology. What happens when it’s an overzealous customer behind the wheel? Consider Tesla superfan @tesla_raj, who wrote last Thursday on his Twitter feed after taking FSD for his first spin: “This is bettaaaaa people and it’s amazing. @elonmusk you savage, you have created a life hack and you have accomplished fsd”.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a statement assuring the American public not to worry, it will “monitor the new technology closely and will not hesitate to take action to protect the public against unreasonable risks to safety”. Talk about a dereliction of duty. When oversight and proactive leadership are needed most, the administration is taking a wait-and-see approach. It went on to remind the public that “no vehicle available for purchase today is capable of driving itself” and that “every state in the Nation holds the driver responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle”.

Yet, when a carmaker labels a software update “Full Self-Driving” and releases it to ordinary drivers over-the-air, surely that software is spitting in the eye of the former and throwing salt in the wound of the latter. As a believer in the promise of self-driving vehicles, I hope that the next several months go smoothly for Tesla but it is nothing more than a hope. The general public deserves better.

One comment

  1. Avatar Drew D Winter 26th October 2020 @ 5:53 pm

    Thank you Andrew Tolve for pointing out that “Full Self-Driving” is an erroneous and reckless name for Tesla’s system.

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