Tesla’s $10,000 ‘Full Self-Driving’ Add-On Will Never Actually Be Fully Self-Driving

Tesla is aiming high for level 5 autonomy, but is stuck at level 2.

03 September 2020, Brandenburg, Grünheide: Elon Musk, head of Tesla, stands laughing next to journalists at the Tesla Gigafactory construction site.  (Photo by Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images) Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

Last October, Tesla (TSLA) rolled out a beta version of its new Autopilot Full Self-Driving (FSD) software (version 8.2) to a small group of Tesla owners in the United States. Driven by high-than-expected demand, this past weekend Elon Musk said his company would make the driver-assistance system available to more customers.

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Many Tesla owners have high hopes for the new FSD, also known as “City Streets,” an add-on priced at $10,000. They’re banking on the software to achieve level 3 autonomy as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), which doesn’t require a driver to stay alert behind the wheel at all times.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. According to what Tesla recently told the California DMV, the final version of City Streets will stay at level 2 semi-autonomous driving.

“City Streets continues to firmly root the vehicle in SAE Level 2 capability and does not make it autonomous under the DMV’s definition,” Tesla said in a letter to DMV first noticed by Twitter user @GreenTheOnly.

“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,” the EV maker explained. “The feature is not designed such that a driver can rely on an alert to draw his attention to a situation requiring response. There are scenarios or situations where an intervention from the driver is required but the system will not alert the driver.

“As such, a final release of City Streets will continue to be an SAE Level 2, advanced driver-assistance feature.”

The SAE defines six levels of driving automation ranging from level 0 (fully manual) to level 5 (fully autonomous). These standards are adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Tesla FSD’s competing software, such as General Motors’ Super Cruise and Ford’s Co-Pilot360 ADAS, are also level 2 autonomous driving programs. These advanced driver-assistance software, or ADAS, are fundamentally different than real self-driving systems developed by companies like Waymo and Zoox.

Waymo, for example, has achieved level 4 autonomy, which can operate without human interaction in most circumstances. (A human still has the option to manually override.) In an interview in January, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said Tesla’s FSD will never achieve full self-driving capabilities. “It is a misconception that you can simply develop a driver-assistance system further until one day you can magically jump to a fully autonomous driving system,” he said. (Musk responded that Tesla has better AI tech and more money.)

Tesla’s ultimate goal is level 5 autonomy. Musk said at an AI conference last summer that level 5 autonomy “will happen very quickly.”

Yet, he certainly knows that the current FSD hasn’t quite lived up to its name. “The word ‘Beta’ is used to reduce complacency in usage and set expectations appropriately,” he cautioned in a tweet on Sunday after announcing expanded software access. 

The good news is that Tesla does plan to develop Level 3 or more advanced autonomous driving capabilities in it next software. “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,” the company said in the DMV document.

Tesla’s $10,000 ‘Full Self-Driving’ Add-On Will Never Actually Be Fully Self-Driving