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Monday, March 1, 2021

When Will Tesla Cars Drive Themselves?

Tesla vehicles have amazing technology. They have big screens, real-time traffic, over-the-air updates, streaming music, you can play video games, and even watch Netflix movies (while parked). 

More to the point of this blog entry, they also have Autopilot. Autopilot is an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) that includes:
  • Traffic-Aware Cruise Control: Matches the speed of your car to that of the surrounding traffic
  • Autosteer: Assists in steering within a clearly marked lane, and uses traffic-aware cruise control
As an ADAS, it is clear that the driver is required to be alert. This system is intended to ease cognitive load and allow the driver to have better situational awareness. It is *not* intended to allow drivers to use their phones or take naps. 

The next level up from Autopilot is Full Self-Driving (FSD) Capability. This includes: 
  • Navigate on Autopilot (Beta): Actively guides your car from a highway’s on-ramp to off-ramp, including suggesting lane changes, navigating interchanges, automatically engaging the turn signal, and taking the exit
  • Auto Lane Change: Assists in moving to an adjacent lane on the highway when Autosteer is engaged
  • Autopark: Helps automatically parallel or perpendicular park your car, with a single touch
  • Summon: Moves your car in and out of a tight space using the mobile app or key
  • Smart Summon: Your car will navigate more complex environments and parking spaces, maneuvering around objects as necessary to come find you in a parking lot.
  • Traffic and Stop Sign Control (Beta): Identifies stop signs and traffic lights and automatically slows your car to a stop on approach, with your active supervision
  • Autosteer on city streets (coming soon as I write this)
There are a few important things to point out about "FSD Capability." The first thing to note that all of these features still require driver supervision and many of them are still in beta or even in limited release beta. That is to say, this is not yet a fully autonomous vehicle, despite the FSD monicker. The second thing to point out is the word "capability." A piece of paper is capable of being folded into a paper airplane, but that does not make a flat sheet of paper an airplane. So when you buy the FSD Capability, you are buying a sheet of paper with some folds in it, and the promise that there will be updates to finish folding it the rest of the way.

If that's what you want to buy, good on you, go for it. I did and I've been very happy with the progress of the FSD Capability. I just wanted to paint a clear picture that when you buy the FSD Capability, you are (currently) still getting an ADAS, just one with more functionality than most. 

Musk's "Coming Soon" Comments 

When will Tesla's FSD evolve from 'just' ADAS to a true fully autonomous vehicle? Elon Musk has been asked this question in several public forums. Here are some of his replies:

[12.22.2015] “We’re going to end up with complete autonomy, and I think we will have complete autonomy in approximately two years.”

[10.19.2016] Discussing the new Autopilot hardware, Musk said, "It is fully capable of Level 5 autonomy, a big step forward." *Note the work 'capable' verses something like 'functional.'

[06.12.2018] Tesla’s cars will in August suddenly activate “full self-driving features,” the company's chief executive Elon Musk tweeted on Sunday. "Features" meaning some subset of "Full."

[10.21.2019] "Next year for sure, we will have over a million robotaxis on the road"

[07.09.2020] "I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level five autonomy complete this year." Where "basic functionallity" is again a subset of "full".

[01.28.2021] "Basically, I'm highly confident the car will drive itself with reliability in excess of a human this year. ...we need to probably do a little bit more work to prove that Tesla Autopilot is capable of full self-driving, which, I think, will become obvious later this year."

As you can see, in statement after statement, Musk had high confidence that FSD-Level 5 will happen soon (where "soon" is any time 2017 or later). I submit to you that all forward-looking statements about something that's never been done before should be taken with a grain of salt. Additionally, these statements are often made under a Safe Habor Clause that provides legal protection for optimistic speculation. Careful parsing allows you to find the caveats (e.g., 'I think', capable, features, basic...), that a quick enthusiastic read (or an intentionally malicious misread) will miss. If you want a vehicle to drive you from A to B tomorrow, I suggest that you take the train, a bus, use Lyft, or hire a chauffeur rather than buy FSD.

If you want a car that can drive you around right now, while you look at your phone, FSD is not it. Take a Lyft instead. 

If, however, you want to be involved in testing one of the most exciting robotic systems that humankind has ever created (and you don't mind continuing to be a responsible driver), then FSD might be worth your hard-earned money. Today, using the Smart Summon feature a Tesla vehicle can (usually) pull out of a parking space and drive to you in a parking lot. This is a nice feature to have if your parking spot has flooded or you have large/heavy items that you don't want to lug through the parking lot.

If you want to test one of the most exciting neural net robotics systems that humankind has ever created (while continuing to be an attentive driver), then FSD is worth the money.

So When Will Full Autonomy Arrive?

In other (less optimistic) statements, Musk has said that they'll have to "chase the nines" to get to full autonomy. I think these are the more realistic statements from Musk that acknowledge that there are many many edge-cases that they will need to resolve and that will be a long process. Musk is a perennial optimist and I don't think his estimates are meant to be deceptive. Rather, they are ambitious goal statements that he believes to be possible. Musk excites, motivates, and manages using moonshots and urgency. It is a proven formula at Tesla (and SpaceX). They have accomplished things that no other company has ever achieved (just not on the publicized timeline). It is also important to note that even though Musk's initial target was 2017 and full autonomy has still not arrived, Tesla has continued to make forward strides every year. Sometimes, when you are doing something for the first time, there are challenges that you didn't even know existed until you get there and encounter them (unknown unknowns). 

Stop Sidestepping the Question! When Will It Happen? Give Me A Date!

It is impossible to predict. Neural nets have a strange tendency to be incompetent for many many iterations and then, suddenly, something clicks and they do amazing things far surpassing your expectations. This means the next build could be the one, but I've gone on record saying that August of 2027 is when the scales tip and it is more likely than not that FSD (full autonomy, Level 5, remove the steering wheel, take a nap and wake-up at your destination) will emerge. That does not mean that it won't exist in limited forms (fair weather, geofenced...) before then, nor does it mean that it impossible before that date. It's just a probability distribution. If you want to know when it is 99% likely, move your bet to 2040.

Disclosure: I'm Long Tesla


  1. Nice write-up and thanks for gathering all the past statements. For me the big "irk" has been that the terms to describe "Full Self Driving" themselves need definitional modifiers. Define "Autopilot". Define "Full" - and Tesla is certainly not the only to take liberties here. At least Level 5 has proper definition (more or less) - itself with some caveats about V2X availability.

    That said, I look forward to the day in late 2027 where I can simply say "Home Jeeves!" and nodding off into nowhere!

    1. Thanks Kevin. I agree that the naming is suboptimal. It has an "aspirational" name that it will eventually live up to. Until then, some people will be confused or irked by it.