Way back in 2015, a young, fresh-faced Mike Ballaban, then working for the Jalopnik electronic car magazine, took a test ride in something new and exciting: a Tesla with a partial driving automation system known as Autopilot. Ballaban of six years in the past was impressed, excited, perhaps even a little giddy about what the future may hold.
Now it’s 2021, and a more mature, perhaps even grizzled Mike Ballaban is back behind the wheel of a semi-automated Tesla again. But this time he’s less impressed, more jaded, more nervous, and working for CNN. What happened to that excitement? That optimism?
Just in case you forgot what young, vibrant Ballaban was like, here’s that 2015 video that showcases the full delight and discovery of Level 2 semi-automation:
He’s so impressed! He’s thrilled by the car’s actions, the way it can drive with his hands off the wheel — a bad idea, we now realize, of course, with the benefit of our years of experience with such L2 driver-assist systems that demand a human be ready to take over with zero notice.
In 2021, in the CNN video of Mike in a Tesla Model 3 with the Full Self-Driving Beta, we encounter a Mike Ballaban that has seen some shit over the years and is no longer impressed by a car that sort of drives itself:
His hair is longer, but, incredibly, he seems to be wearing the exact same purple sweater as he did back in 2015, and this time his delight has been replaced by nervousness.
Ballaban likens driving with the FSD system enabled to being like “teaching a teenager how to drive,” where you can never entirely relax because FSD was making some sketchy and even borderline dangerous decisions as he drove with it through Brooklyn, having to take control of the car away from the beta software multiple times.
So what happened to the gleeful enthusiasm of the Ballaban that drove a much less full-featured system back in 2015?
Reality happened. Promises from 2016 Elon Musk about self-driving Teslas coming to find you from across the country came and went without realization:
Even sweet, innocent, optimistic Mike Ballaban himself wanted to eagerly know when he could expect such marvels:
Of course, we now know that didn’t happen. We know that the problems of self-driving proved to be more complex than Elon expected, and we’ve seen the system abused by drivers many times. And the most recent reports about the performance of the latest versions of FSD Beta haven’t exactly been stellar.
I agree with Mike’s assessment that we’re still years away from real self-driving. And that’s okay; it’s more important to do this right and solve the difficult issues associated with automated driving than it is to rush into it with half-ass solutions that cause more problems than they solve.
I don’t blame Tesla for not figuring it out by now. That’s totally understandable. Beta testing these systems on public roads, with non-consenting people all around, is not great.
Their real crime, though, is destroying the childlike joy and optimism of one Mike Ballaban, who just had a dream about self-driving cars, back in the simpler times of 2015.