By Ishita Moghe, January 5 2021—
“I think five or six years from now we will be able to achieve true autonomous driving where you can get in the car, go to sleep, and wake up at your destination,” said Tesla CEO Elon Musk in October 2014.
Six years later, his company released a closed beta of their full self-driving (FSD) technology, which allows the car to navigate independently from your location to any destination without driver input. The software release included a disclaimer that the software may “do the wrong thing at the worst time,” and to stay alert at all times. Soon after this exciting release, videos of the new software in action flooded the internet, quickly verifying Tesla’s claim about the software’s potentially dangerous decisions. Customer videos consistently show the car being extremely hesitant while making a turn in an intersection and accelerating far too slowly afterward to avoid impeding the flow of traffic. At four-way stops, the vehicle stops at the line but does not creep forward to check for vehicles. From this partially blind position, the car tries to determine whether it is safe to proceed. When the car decides that it is safe, it will perform the turn in the same slow and unsure manner.
While these issues certainly are troubling, the software’s behaviour is consistent — the driver can anticipate the car’s slow turning and intervene if necessary. The true danger exists when the car acts incorrectly at unpredictable times. For example, while many videos show that the car can navigate roundabouts reliably, some users have complained that their cars enter roundabouts and continue straight towards the curb in the middle of the roundabout.
Though the presence of potentially dangerous behaviour in Tesla’s FSD beta suggests that completely autonomous driving is still several years away, it is important to realize how quickly this industry giant’s autopilot has been improving and becoming more capable. Tesla’s “Navigate on Autopilot”, introduced in April 2019, had the capability to change lanes on the highway without driver intervention. In just a year and a half, Tesla has gone from autonomous lane changing to autonomous driving from start to end of a journey. FSD beta is able to navigate highways, small alleys and is able to recognize and respond to most objects around it. While the current iteration of Tesla Full Self Driving drives only slightly better than a nervous pre-teen, with weekly updates to the software it may mature a whole lot quicker than you would expect.