Weekly Brief: When’s a Self-Driving Car Not a Self-Driving Car? When it’s a Tesla

Tesla launched a new subscription service last week for its ‘Full Self Driving’ (FSD) package.

For the price of $199 per month, Tesla owners can now upgrade their vehicles to a more advanced version of Autopilot that claims to allow them to navigate on Autopilot, automatically change lanes, self-park and autonomously respond to traffic lights and stop signs. The new monthly subscription service means that drivers no longer have to pay an upfront cost of $10,000 for self-driving capabilities. So long as they have version 3.0 of the FSD hardware, which has come standard on all Tesla cars since 2019, they can pay as they go and cancel at any time.

This is almost a watershed moment for self-driving cars. Two of the biggest challenges holding back the self-driving revolution are exposure and trust. Not that many people have experienced self-driving tech and, as a result, not that many people trust it. The idea, therefore, of creating a service where drivers can experience self-driving capabilities in their own vehicles for a relatively low price each month is smart. If they don’t like it, they can return to traditional driving as easily as they can cancel a subscription on Netflix or Hulu. Tesla CEO Elon Musk believes that the new subscription model is vital for increasing the number of drivers on Tesla’s FSD platform, which will further improve the technology and deliver Musk’s dream of making full self-driving a mainstream reality.

Cruising

There’s one catch: Tesla’s self-driving package doesn’t actually turn a Tesla into a fully self-driving car. Not even close. FSD is basically a glorified semi-autonomous driver assistance system. It doesn’t work safely in urban environments and gets tripped up by busy intersections and other befuddling encounters with moving impediments like pedestrians. “The currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous,” Tesla warns in the fine print. In other words, FSD isn’t FSD. It’s more like Cadillac Super Cruise, except when you buy a Cadillac with Super Cruise, you don’t have to pay a penny more for the technology month after month.

Is Musk selling snake oil here? I’ll leave that to Tesla owners to decide. What’s certain is that in advertising a platform as ‘Full Self Driving’ and simultaneously whispering that it’s not capable of full self-driving, Tesla is perpetuating a dangerous habit of encouraging its drivers to believe their vehicles are capable of more than they actually are; a habit that has already caused a number of fatal accidents involving Autopilot in the past.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is still investigating some of these accidents and is yet to make a recommendation. That’s no surprise coming from a Department of Transportation that has been loath to provide guidance, regulations or restrictions on the self-driving industry. As a result, Tesla can release FSD and the rest of us can hope that Tesla drivers use it responsibly. [Something many of them have been incapable of so far – Ed]

In other news last week, charging company Electrify America announced plans to more than double the number of fast charging EV stations across America and Canada by 2025. Electrify America is on pace to have 800 charging stations built in North America by the end of 2021. Last week’s commitment would bring that number to 1,800 charging stations by 2025. The move was prompted by growing consumer interest in EVs coupled with the fact that automakers are making increasingly large pledges to electrify in the coming years — automakers like Volkswagen, whose CEO Herbert Deiss laid out a new strategy for his company last Tuesday, in which internal combustion engine sales will be replaced by EVs, as well as new revenue streams from robo-taxis and ridesharing.

The only way that growth can happen is if EV charging infrastructure expands rapidly. Electrify America’s plans are a start but 1,800 charging stations frankly won’t cut it in the long term. President Biden wants half a million charging stations in America by 2030, a target that would require $15Bn of investment.


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