Tesla’s long-promised and much-delayed “Full Self-Driving” software update finally has been released, albeit in limited beta form.
Anyone expecting to turn the system on and stretch out for a snooze while their Tesla takes over will be in for a disappointment, however, as the California EV maker accompanied the upgrade with clear warnings that motorists will need to remain completely vigilant and ready to take over at a moment’s notice.
In the notes accompanying the release, the automaker warned the system “may do the wrong thing at the worst time.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a cautionary note suggesting it would “not hesitate to take action to protect (the) public against unreasonable risks to safety,” should problems develop.
The new upgrade, according to Tesla, is going out to only an undisclosed group of “exert, careful” drivers. It takes things a big step beyond what the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system has been able to do, among other things allowing a vehicle to operate on city streets, as well as limited access highways. The software released can recognize and respond to stop signs and traffic signals, among other things that human drivers do routinely.
Initial reaction from those who’ve gotten the upgrade has been generally ecstatic, with videos and tweets quickly popping up on the web. But there have also been plenty of those, like NHTSA, sounding notes of caution, if not outright concern.
The technology trade group PAVE – short for Partners for Automated Vehicle Eduction – issued its own statement cautioning that, “Public road testing is a serious responsibility and using untrained consumers to validate beta-level software on public roads is dangerous and inconsistent with existing guidance and industry norms,”
Even the website Electrek, normally enthralled by Tesla technology, summed things up succinctly, warning that drivers need to “not become complacent.”
Tesla was one of the first automakers to put a semi-autonomous driving assist system in one of its vehicles, the original Autopilot. It quickly generated controversy, critics contending the company overhyped the system’s capabilities. Though Tesla denied that, the internet was quickly filled with videos showing motorists driving around with hands off the wheel and even, in one case, jumping into the back seat.
There have been a number of crashes – including several fatal ones – involving Autopilot, both NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board putting responsibility on Tesla for several of them, though drivers also took blame for operating recklessly or failing to heed warnings to retake manual control.
For its part, Tesla has dismissed such criticism, CEO Elon Musk, in particular, contending Autopilot has actually prevented a substantial number of potential crashes.
Barring any serious glitches – or action by federal regulators – Tesla plans to issue a broader release of the Full Self-Driving software upgrade by the end of the year. Those who’d like to order it will be able to do so starting next Monday. It will cost $8,000 once available.
For his part, Musk acknowledged that development of the system will continue, even as it begins to roll out onto the road. During a Tesla earnings call earlier this week, he said he hopes to have vehicles with the system “providing feedback” through their over-the-air communications technology. But he defended launching the latest system declaring “the world is a complex and messy place” and drivers could use the assistance.
“This is actively misleading people about the capabilities of the system, based on the information I’ve seen about it,” Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied autonomous driving for 40 years, told the Associated Press. “It is a very limited functionality that still requires constant driver supervision.”
Tesla, which reportedly has eliminated its entire PR department, did not respond to a request for comment from TheDetroitBureau.com.