A week ago, Tesla quietly pulled its full self-driving (FSD) option from Model 3, Model S, and Model X. Tesla announced, or more accurately, Elon Musk tweeted on Oct. 18 that FSD is currently off the menu because it’s “causing too much confusion.”
This is no small matter considering that for two years, Tesla has been charging customers $3,000 to $5,000 for a so-called FSD upgrade. Tesla has not committed to refunding any of its FSD windfall.
Call me old-fashioned, but this is the sort of corporate behavior, in my book, that appears in the “scams” chapter.
Until recently, Tesla’s original order page promised: “All you will need to do is get in and tell your car where to go.” It added: “Your Tesla will figure out the optimal route, navigate urban streets (even without lane markings), manage complex intersections with traffic lights, stop signs, and roundabouts, and handle densely packed freeways with cars moving at high speed.”
Seriously, though, as Phil Magney, founder and principal at VSI Labs, noted, “It’s been two years since Tesla started selling the FSD option, and buyers of the upgrade have nothing to show for the thousands of dollars they spent. Musk implied that FSD was a year or two away, but Tesla doesn’t seem to be much closer to FSD now than they were two years ago.”
The question, then, is whether “Musk was too optimistic about how quickly full self-driving capabilities could be achieved,” noted Magney. This interpretation strikes me as exceedingly charitable.
However, I realize that Tesla is deemed by many in the tech industry to be a whole different kind of carmaker, with a fan base that comprises a whole different kind of buyer. It’s possible that Musk knew all along that his believers, dazzled by his vision of the “future,” were willing to go down his yellow-brick roadmap even if the trek proved to be two years long — or more.
An apt analogy in recent media coverage comes from a Tesla customer comparing the FSD option to a crowdfunding campaign. By backing Musk’s project, customers are excited about the concept behind the project and want it to succeed. They understand and accept that the project has risks and that the product may be delivered late — or not at all.
All of the car OEMs on the planet must be wishing that they had Tesla’s luck.
I’ve also noticed that Tesla commands a lot of respect from the engineering crowd. One engineering executive who works in the automotive space, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me, “Tesla is no big car OEM.” That means that Tesla, unlike the legacy carmakers, does not have the luxury of leveraging two different platforms — one for ADAS and another for fully autonomous vehicles — to perfect ADAS and FSD in parallel. Collecting several thousand dollars for the full self-driving upgrade must have been Tesla’s business decision, he theorized, “to spend that financial resource to focus on R&D for their future vehicles.”
Strangely enough, that logic sort of made sense to me.
However, putting my consumer hat on, I could’t help but wonder why we’re letting Musk get away with such an obvious bait-and-switch.
Here’s the thing: Has anyone among EE Times readers in the technology business ever believed that any Tesla vehicle has the horsepower (processing power), redundancy, and sensors to make FSD possible via over-the-air software updates?
Mike Demler, senior analyst at the Linley Group, told us, “I’ve been a skeptic since [Musk] started making that claim back in 2016.”
Demler said, “The confusion he is claiming as the reason for pulling FSD can only be his own misunderstanding of what FSD means.”
He noted, “It should have been obvious to anyone looking at the technology in his cars that there’s no way they could be ‘fully autonomous.’ For that matter, there are still no vehicles capable of full (i.e., Level 5) autonomy. His blog came a few months after the first autopilot fatality, when he began replacing Mobileye EyeQ 3 systems with Nvidia hardware. Now he’s planning to replace that with a Tesla-designed SoC.”
Demler added, “The earlier systems weren’t designed for anything beyond Level 2, so it was a totally unbelievable claim. I doubt their new chip will enable anything beyond a limited set of Level 3 features, as in Audi Traffic Jam Assist and Cadillac Super Cruise.”
Have we nailed ADAS yet?
We already know that the processing power necessary for autonomous vehicles is huge. But the problem doesn’t end there. Ask any sensor technology supplier. You’d be hard-pressed to find a vendor who could state flatly that the automotive industry has even nailed ADAS yet, let alone fully self-driving cars.
Chris Jacobs, vice president of autonomous transportation and automotive safety at Analog Devices Inc. (ADI), acknowledged that barriers to full autonomy are still very high. Among the biggest are an obvious lack of legislation for highly automated vehicles (HAVs) and insurance policies associated with them. Neither issue is close to resolution, he said. But equally important are sensors with adequate high resolution and better algorithms.
“Today’s ADAS system can function as a warning system,” said Jacobs. “But when it comes to Level 3 actuation, we still have a long way to go.”
Many radars in use today are still primitive in the range and resolution that they offer.