Promises of hands-free driving and robotaxis have swirled in the dreams of drivers and investors ever since Tesla first teased the possibility of a consumer-grade autonomous vehicle. Despite this promise, Tesla has yet to release a fully autonomous car for the public to purchase. It does, however, still allow customers to buy the promise of the “Full Self-Driving” (FSD) set of features for their vehicles which currently fit the SAE definition of Level 2 partial autonomy.
So what exactly is Tesla teasing in its newest “FSD Beta” Advanced Driver-Assistance System (ADAS) build? As it turns out, a recently uncovered series of emails between Tesla and the California Department of Motor Vehicles indicates that while the automaker’s ADAS systems are greatly improving, hands-free driving is not coming to a Tesla near you in the immediate future.
Last October, Tesla released an over-the-air update to limited participants which it called “FSD Beta,” something which many understood to be an early release of Tesla’s long-promised hands-off suite. By December, around 200 individuals were granted access to the program, 54 of whom were non-Tesla employees (though this likely changed, as CEO Elon Musk reported that Tesla had nearly 1,000 people participating in the beta by January). Those included in the FSD Beta began driving their vehicles around and recording the vehicle’s performance to post online.
FSD Beta, which is formally called “Autosteer on City Streets,” is part of the Full Self-Driving suite of ADAS features and not a standalone component that enables hands-free driving as some might anticipate. This connotation exacerbated the confusion sparked by the Full Self-Driving branding and provoked an email from the California DMV. Said email requested that Tesla immediately provide clarification on the FSD Beta functionality to ensure that the automaker was not testing on California roads without the proper permit to deploy such a feature.
“City Streets continues to firmly root the vehicle in SAE Level 2 capability and does not make it autonomous under the DMV’s definition,” wrote Eric Williams, Tesla associate general counsel, in a statement attached to an email with the California DMV. “City Streets’ capabilities with respect to the object and event detection and response (OEDR) sub-task are limited, as there are circumstances and events to which the system is not capable of recognizing or responding.”
Williams went on to define such circumstances as adverse weather, complicated or adversarial vehicles in the driving path, construction zones, emergency vehicles, large uncontrolled intersections with multiple incoming ways, occlusions, road debris, static objects, and unmapped roads—all things which one would expect a vehicle with Level 3 or higher partial-autonomy to be able to identify and remediate, or at least notify the driver to take over.
Further reading indicates that Tesla’s current FSD Beta is limited to the inclusion of updated visualizations and Autosteer on City Streets, not any form of hands-off driving as many members of the public anticipated given the name. This alone has caused a great deal of confusion from current and prospective owners, questioning whether or not FSD would be “feature complete” (which CEO Elon Musk said would happen by the end of 2019), and if that meant Tesla would achieve Level 5 autonomy by the time the FSD Beta would be released to all drivers.
Further confusion was brewed as Musk tweeted about “self-drive while playing” video games. This occurred around the time of the emails being sent to the California DMV, and it almost certainly added to the uncertainty as other Twitter users even responded to the tweet asking for access to the FSD Beta so they could try it out.
“[A] final release of City Streets will continue to be an SAE Level 2, advanced driver-assistance feature,” continued Williams. “Please note that Tesla’s development of true autonomous features (SAE Levels 3+) will follow our iterative process (development, validation, early release, etc.) and any such features will not be released to the general public until we have fully validated them and received any required regulatory permits or approvals.”
In fairness, Tesla does list Autosteer on City Streets as a feature of FSD; however, making the determination that the FSD Beta is not a preview of Tesla’s hands-off driving experience is not as easy. Tesla is also notorious for changing around what is included in its $10,000 Full Self-Driving menu offering, so it’s quite possible that hands-free driving may be introduced at a later date under a different feature name.
If nothing else, this further proves that the world of self-driving is built on a hill of confusing semantics. The definition of “partial-autonomy” seems to be “hands-off” driving to others, and such a small designation is enough to create serious risk—this type of marketing can be dangerous.
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