Even though I get accused every now and then of being some miserable Tesla-hater who just wants to impede human progress and see Elon Musk weep, I have to deny that. I don’t hate Tesla. I think it’s a fascinating company that has made some really impressive and well-designed cars as it leads the rest of the industry into an electric revolution. I also think it occasionally makes some really terrible decisions. One of those is how Tesla describes its Autopilot system, a choice of words that is at best deceptive, and at worst could put people’s lives in jeopardy.
The words I have a problem with can be found on the ordering pages on Tesla’s website, in the Autopilot section:
“Full Self-Driving Capability.” What do you think an average person imagines when they hear the phrase “full self-driving capability?” I’m pretty sure they imagine a car that can drive itself, fully, right now. I mean, that’s exactly what those words describe: the capability to drive itself, in full. At some point, Tesla has said a major upgrade is coming that will actually realize this, though no date has been set.
There’s not a lot of ambiguity there; the use of “full” sure seems to imply that the car is doing the full amount of driving. The problem is that this is absolutely not the case.
Tesla’s Autopilot is currently a Level 2 semi-autonomous system. It is absolutely not “full self-driving” in any way. The system requires constant attention from the person in the driver’s seat, and that person must have hands on the steering wheel and be ready to take over at a moment’s notice, which means the person behind the wheel needs to be engaged and paying attention to what the car is doing, at all times, just like if you were driving.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the image that pops into people’s minds when they consider the phrase “full self-driving capability.”
Tesla does have an impressive new version of Autopilot out, called Navigate on Autopilot, and this allows a Tesla to drive itself from highway onramp to off-ramp, while changing lanes and passing cars as needed.
It’s impressive, no question, but it still requires driver input to confirm the driver is alert and paying attention, it still requires hands on the wheel, and it still requires the person behind the wheel to be ready to take over in an instant. It’s not suitable to drive in dense cities with complex and chaotic patterns of traffic and pedestrians, and, in actual usage, it was found to make some pretty questionable and occasionally illegal driving decisions, at least according to tests conducted by Consumer Reports.
In short, it’s not full self-driving.
Tesla is, of course, aware of this, because in smaller print right on the same page is this:
The currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous. The activation and use of these features are dependent on achieving reliability far in excess of human drivers as demonstrated by billions of miles of experience, as well as regulatory approval, which may take longer in some jurisdictions. As these self-driving features evolve, your car will be continuously upgraded through over-the-air software updates.
That little disclaimer paragraph pretty much says, no, it’s not really full self-driving, sorry, but probably one day soon, it will be!
That’s like if Mitsubishi sold a Mirage with a set of rotors mounted on the roof and said it was a Full Flying Car, but then had a paragraph that stated that the actual flying car features were not yet implemented, but perhaps one day an update would be available to let your Mirage fly, pending regulatory approval.
I think we’d all agree that’s not a flying car. Just like the Teslas you can buy today with a check box for “Full Self-Driving Capability” are not full self-driving cars.
What I don’t understand is why Tesla insists on using this phrase? They already got in hot water last year by the Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog groups for using that same terminology, so why do they insist on using such a confusing and possibly deceptive description?
Thanks to this sort of thing, there’s a ton of confusion among the general public about self-driving cars: a study late last year found that 71 percent of people across the globe think you can go out and buy a fully self-driving car today.
You can’t, because there are no full self-driving cars available for sale yet, anywhere.
This confusion is what leads people to do dangerous and stupid things in their semi-autonomous cars, like the many reports of people sleeping at the wheel of their Autopilot-operated Teslas. These kinds of behaviors can lead to wrecks, wrecks that may not have had to happen if people better understood the real capabilities of their cars.
Yes, Tesla has warnings and disclaimers and chimes and all sorts of measures to keep people from doing this kind of thing, but when they’re also calling its cars “full self-driving,” there’s clearly some mixed messaging going on.
I reached out to Tesla to ask them why they insist on using that particular phrase to describe its cars when there’s no good that can come of such a confusing overstatement of what the car is really capable of. At best, people may be disappointed, and at worst they may do something stupid like taking an 85 MPH nap.
The response I got from Tesla was, if I’m honest, a bit troubling. They never really acknowledged that the choice of words could be confusing, but they did mention the disclaimer, and, more significantly, suggested that I find my way to Los Angeles or New York so I could try out the latest Navigate on Autopilot system and see what I thought.
Now, I’m all for that—I’m very curious to try that out, and I have no doubt it’ll be impressive. The problem is that no matter if it works perfectly, the fundamental parameters of what the system is capable of doing does not make it “full self-driving,” in any way.
It’s a very well-realized Level 2 semi-autonomous system, which is fine, but that is not something I would ever call “full self-driving.” And I don’t think Tesla should, either.
The implication of suggesting I test the new system felt like they hoped I’d be so impressed by it, I’d just agree that, yeah, this is close enough! Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure felt like that.
The only directly-quotable response they gave me was one of Elon Musk’s comments at its recent Autonomy Investor Day:
“All Tesla cars being produced right now have everything necessary for full self-driving. All you need to do is improve the software….By the middle of next year, we’ll have over million Tesla cars on the road with full self- driving hardware, feature-complete…The fleet wakes up with an over-the-air update.”
Okay, so, I see what they’re getting at, generally. They want to convey the idea that its cars will be able to become fully self-driving at some point in the future when the software is “improved,” and when regulatory issues are sorted enough to permit it.
The problem is that both of these things are non-trivial. The way Elon says “all you need to do is improve the software” makes it sound like they just need to take the REM statements out of some subroutines and boom, the car drives itself.
I think that’s a pretty gross oversimplification of things. Software is a very big deal, and I’m not even sure of what the hurdles getting regulatory approval will be, but I am pretty confident there will be hurdles.
Even if they can handle these things no problem, the fact remains that the cars they’re selling today are not full self-driving, and they’re being sold with those very words describing them. I don’t care if it’s explained in some small print on the site, the fact remains that people hear and read those words and get an idea in their head about what the car can do that is not in line with reality, and that can cause problems.
Tesla needs to change its marketing to make it far more clear what reality is. They can say “Powerful Semi-Self-Driving Capabilities today, with full self-driving coming in the future,” or something snappier, but with that message.
People who buy these cars need to know that Autopilot is something that assists with driving, in direct and active partnership with a non-sleeping human being at the wheel. Being coy about this or using words that feel like some kind of wish-fulfillment magic in hopes of just forcing the fully autonomous future to happen right now will only cause trouble.
Words are important, and Tesla needs to pick them more carefully.