Weekly Brief: Tesla’s Promise of Full Autonomy in 2019 is Shameful

Tesla’s self-driving feature AutoPilot will deliver fully autonomous driving by the end of the year claims Elon Musk, who made the announcement with typical Muskian flair.

“The car will be able to find you in a parking lot, pick you up and take you all the way to your destination without an intervention, this year,” Musk said. “I would say I am of certain of that. That is not a question mark.” He went on to say that come 2020, drivers would be able to fall asleep at the wheel, without worry or care, and magically wake up at their destinations.

The bluster here shouldn’t be surprising given Musk’s history for audacious statements that later have to be retracted or amended with delays. Yet somehow in the current environment, these comments come across as surprising indeed and even downright dangerous. Ever since an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian last year, the industry has tacked toward more conservative language and less ambitious deadlines. Waymo delivered on its promise to launch a commercial service in 2018 but it quickly became apparent that that service was little more than a continuation of its existing pilot. It didn’t hype the launch at all and it hasn’t done anything to draw attention to its service since.

General Motors’ Cruise has promised a commercial service in 2019 but you can trust when it arrives that it will do so in the same subdued manner. There’s been no pomp around any of Cruise’s pilots or milestones in the past year. The same goes for the likes of Uber, which has gone back into stealth mode, and Aurora (which just raised $530 million in funding through Amazon). Most carmakers pursuing self-driving tech for the consumer segment have pushed target dates back to 2025 or later. The fact is that public opinion has plummeted since the Uber accident and federal regulation is still yet to arrive, so no player in the self-driving space in America wants the spotlight trained on them if or when something goes awry. No company except Tesla, that is.

Tesla’s AutoPilot feature as it exists today is a Level 2 self-driving system capable of little more than souped-up cruise control. It can suggest and execute lane changes on the highway and can steer a car from on-ramps to off-ramps but drivers still have to be actively involved in the driving at every step of the way, with their hands at the ready in case their car … you know, fails to pick up a semi truck. Pole vaulting all the way up to Level 5 autonomy by the end of the year would thus represent a remarkable increase in complexity and capability.

Is it possible that Musk is telling the truth that AutoPilot will soon be so advanced that Tesla drivers can snooze from starting point to destination? Let’s just say that it’s highly unlikely. Industry experts, industry CEOs, pretty much anybody who’s connected with the industry at all concedes that Waymo has logged the most miles and with those miles has fine-tuned the most advanced autonomous tech in the world. Everybody else is playing catch up and yet Waymo’s tech still struggles with the basics when it’s not on the highway, from turning left across traffic to navigating T intersections to anticipating how human drivers will accelerate from a stand still. So, the idea that Tesla will shoot out an update and all of a sudden its cars will be ready to deliver the promise of complete autonomy, including for non-highway driveway, seems like a stretch.

That’s where the dangerous part comes in. AutoPilot has already led to a number of road deaths and lawsuits, each of which Tesla has vociferously denied responsibility for. These happened while just operating in relatively safe highway environments instead of busy urban streets with bikers weaving in and out of traffic, pedestrians jaywalking and cars slamming on their brakes. Even if Musk ultimately backs down from his promise – again, is likely – this sort of reaching language and overpromising is what has led to most of those AutoPilot accidents in the first place. Time and again Tesla drivers talk about how they were under the impression that AutoPilot could do more than it actually could and feel like AutoPilot let them down.

Tesla had tried to walk some of that language back in the past year. Now Musk has walked it right back forward again with seemingly little care for the drivers whose safety it will affect.

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