- Lucy Nicholson / Reuters
- Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during the automaker’s fourth-quarter earnings call that Autopilot, Tesla’s semiautonomous driver-assistance system, was capable of full autonomy on highways.
- But industry observers have disputed that characterization. Mary Cummings, a professor at Duke who studies the interaction between humans and autonomous driving systems, told Business Insider that no auto or tech company had created a fully or semiautonomous driving system that could operate on the highway without any human attention.
- Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst for Navigant, told Business Insider that Musk had overstated Autopilot’s capabilities, which could put Tesla owners at risk of misusing Autopilot.
- A Tesla representative said Musk was referring to capabilities that are not yet available to consumers and directed Business Insider to a page on the automaker’s website that describes Tesla’s approach to vehicle safety and includes data about accident rates for Tesla vehicles with and without Autopilot activated.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a bold statement during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call in late January when he said that Autopilot, Tesla’s semiautonomous driver-assistance system, was capable of full autonomy on highways.
“We already have full self-driving capability on highways,” he said. “So from highway on-ramp to highway exit, including passing cars and going from one highway interchange to another, full self-driving capability is there.”
A Tesla representative said Musk was referring to capabilities that are not yet available to consumers.
Musk added that “in a few weeks” Tesla would allow owners in some markets to remove an Autopilot setting requiring them to approve lane changes suggested by their vehicle. He said he believed the update would receive regulatory approval in the US in the near term and eventually in all other markets.
Tesla is still working on full autonomy
Musk’s remark was striking because, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ classification of autonomous driving systems, Autopilot is a Level-2 system, which means it can automate some driving tasks but requires the driver to pay attention at all times. (There are five levels, with the fifth representing full autonomy.)
That’s a major difference from the Level-4 autonomous driving software the Google spin-off Waymo has deployed in its ride-hailing service that operates in parts of Arizona. There, vehicles drive without human assistance within a geofenced area, requiring an in-vehicle safety operator to intervene only if it faces a particularly challenging situation. Tesla is also working on fully autonomous driving software, but complete autonomy would represent a significant advance from Autopilot, said Michael Harley, an executive editor at Kelley Blue Book.
Tesla vehicles will also need more processing power, more powerful cameras and radars, and the ability to communicate with other vehicles before they will be capable of full autonomy, Harley said.
For now, no auto or tech company including Waymo has created a fully or semiautonomous driving system that can operate on the highway without any human supervision, Mary Cummings, a professor at Duke who studies the interaction between humans and autonomous driving systems, told Business Insider.
“He’s wrong, but it’s his job to sell cars,” Cummings said of Musk’s Autopilot comment.
Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst for Navigant, said Musk’s comments about Autopilot could even be dangerous for Tesla owners.
“Nothing has changed for Elon,” he said. “He remains as reckless as he’s ever been with regard to the way he talks about Autopilot and its capabilities.”
A Tesla representative directed Business Insider to a page on the automaker’s website that describes Tesla’s approach to vehicle safety and includes data about accident rates for Tesla vehicles with and without Autopilot activated.
“We believe the unique combination of passive safety, active safety, and automated driver assistance is crucial for keeping not just Tesla drivers and passengers safe, but all drivers on the road,” the page says.
Mixed messages could put customers at risk
Drivers are generally bad at monitoring Level-2 systems while driving, and Musk’s comments, which overstate Autopilot’s capabilities, don’t help, Abuelsamid said. Many of the most widely reported accidents involving Autopilot have included drivers who appeared to be distracted.
“When somebody like Elon Musk tells his customers that, hey, this is full self-driving now, when it is absolutely not, I think that he is actually putting his customers at risk, because you have to take into account the reality of human behavior with these kinds of systems, and Tesla is not doing that,” Abuelsamid said.
The owner’s manual for Tesla’s Model 3 sedan instructs drivers to remain in control of their vehicle when using Autopilot, but most vehicle owners don’t read the manuals, Abuelsamid said. They’re more likely to hear Musk’s statements about Autopilot or see him using the feature with his hands off the wheel during television interviews, as he did on “60 Minutes” and “CBS This Morning” in 2018, he said.
Musk’s comments about Autopilot during the earnings call contrasted against the reserved tone Tesla’s competitors in the self-driving industry have adopted in the past year. For many companies, bold predictions about the imminent arrival of self-driving cars have given way to reminders about the importance of safety and the challenges that remain for developers of autonomous driving software.
“Everybody’s realizing that the problem is a lot harder than they thought,” Abuelsamid said. “They’re not slowing down the rate at which they work, but they’re trying to reset expectations a little bit about when true automated driving capabilities will be a reality in more than just limited environments. And, unfortunately, Elon refuses to acknowledge the obvious in front of him.”
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