Usually I send out any changes to the Jalopnik style guide in an email with the subject line “Copy Diktat.” But today I’m going to post it on the site so as not to confuse readers. We’re making a rule about the way we refer to Tesla’s driver-assist features.
From now on, when referring to what Tesla calls its “Full Self-Driving” system, Jalopnik will say “Tesla’s Level 2 driver-assist system” or something similar. We’ll try not to mention Full Self-Driving without making it absolutely clear that the system does not allow the car to drive itself.
At times, it’ll make for some awkwardness and become a little tedious, but hey you’re the one reading Jalopnik!
If you’re not clear on what we’re talking about, check out Jason’s handy graphic below:
Tesla’s Autopilot feature, even with the optional Full Self-Driving add-on, is in reality a Level 2 driver-assist system — and by all accounts, a pretty good one. Here’s what Tesla’s website says about it:
Autopilot is an advanced driver assistance system that enhances safety and convenience behind the wheel. When used properly, Autopilot reduces your overall workload as a driver. 8 external cameras, a radar, 12 ultrasonic sensors and a powerful onboard computer provide an additional layer of safety to guide you on your journey. Cars built between September 2014 and October 2016 include one camera and less-powerful radar and ultrasonic sensors.
There are two Autopilot packages available for purchase: Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability.
Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment. While these features are designed to become more capable over time, the currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous.
There’s more detail here, but that’s a pretty clear explanation of what the systems are and what they do.
But if that’s what the system does, why is it called Full Self-Driving Capability? I can’t say for sure that Tesla is intentionally misleading people to believe that its cars are capable — or will some day be capable of — something that they are not capable of. I can say that Tesla is not being clear with customers, and it’s not trying to avoid giving the wrong impression.
This isn’t to say Tesla doesn’t provide plenty of clear warnings in its documentation about the limitations of Autopilot, FSD and related systems. The company absolutely does, and you can see a sample of these here, right from Tesla’s owner’s manual:
These are in conjunction with warnings on the car’s display itself when it detects no hands on the steering wheel, along with audio warnings of increasing intensity.
A hand on the wheel does not necessarily mean a driver is engaged, and it’s not as if ways around these restrictions haven’t been discovered by drivers. The problem here is fuzzy, not clean-cut.
Still, Tesla is probably covering itself legally here, but the problem is that all this very serious legal stuff is routinely winked away by Tesla’s living embodiment, the most visible auto-industry personality in history and the world’s first or second richest person, Elon Musk.
The problem is exacerbated by the many fanatical rubes who combine a limited understanding of cars, technology and the auto industry with the insatiable desire to post online and/or die for the glory of supporting Elon Musk’s endeavors.
The result is what could charitably be called a lack of clarity around whether it’s OK to sleep or watch a movie in your Tesla, to leave the driver’s seat or look at your phone.
The willful spreading of misleading information about Tesla’s driver-assist systems has almost certainly contributed to crashes and deaths. The role of Autopilot in fatal incidents has been cited in crash investigations by agencies including the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
In simple terms, a big part of our job is to help readers understand what’s going on in the world of cars. We owe it to you to be clear about what the cars we cover are capable of, especially when an automaker deliberately obfuscates a system that is inherently dangerous.
Calling a Level 2 driver-assist system Full Self-Driving is irresponsible and we’re not gonna do it anymore.
Tesla, have your PR department reach out if this is a problem for you.