Over this past weekend, we wrote about how quickly people were trying out Tesla’s new Smart Summon feature, part of the recent Version 10 software upgrade, to have their cars autonomously drive to meet them in parking lots. The results were often less than ideal, with Teslas getting confused and behaving in strange ways, sometimes nearly or even actually causing damage to itself or other objects, and pretty much always making everyone nervous. That’s still going on, and will likely continue.
As with anything Tesla, everything is complicated by the voracity of the brand’s fans and supporters, who are quick to suggest that any videos of less-than-utopian Tesla experiences are fakes created by “shorts,” devious, greedy people hoping to cause Tesla harm so they can make money by “shorting” the stocks, driving prices down so they can be bought and re-sold later for more money, or whatever.
For example, this drone video of a Tesla owner’s attempts to use Smart Summon provides some great insight into how the car is behaving, thanks to the overhead view:
It’s a pretty straightforward setup: excellent weather, full parking lot but not that much traffic, and yet the Tesla still seems very tentative and makes some odd driving decisions that, at the very least, disrupt the driving flow of the parking lot.
It’s still impressive technology, but it doesn’t exactly show that technology to be really ready for real-world use. In the end, the owner has to run out to the car to move it and let other cars pass, which makes Smart Summon the ideal choice if you’re too lazy to walk to your car, but not too lazy to sprint to it in a panic when it just stops right in the middle of the lane, blocking everyone.
When the video was posted on the Tesla Motors Club forum, some users had responses like this:
People are actively accusing the poster of the original video of faking it, editing out a driver, though that doesn’t explain the end of the video, when the owner running up would have had to, what, drive off on the allegedly edited-out driver’s lap? And if you were going to fake it, wouldn’t you do something more dramatic?
Here’s another video, where the Model 3 actually manages to scrape its own wheel because it didn’t properly see or differentiate the road from the curb.
In another test in this same video, the owner takes the car to a crowded parking lot, where people are walking in front of the car with impunity, unaware that the car has no driver.
Now, the Tesla does fine at not running anyone over, but at the same time, it does make one have to ask if it’s really okay for an owner to be involving random members of the general public to be unwitting participants in what is really an experiment with a 4,000 pound robotic car?
Busy parking lots are chaotic places, with kids running around and often pets and distracted people—even with the impressive technology Tesla uses here, nothing on this car is actually rated to be anything past Level 2 semi-autonomy (which I’m not thrilled about itself, as you can read here), and that requires a driver to be alert and ready behind the wheel at all times. How is this any different? Here, the owner can be far enough away, with obstructed vision, to the point where they could easily not see the car about to cause actual harm.
Even when the system does generally work okay, it does not behave in a way that humans are expecting or are even often comfortable with. And, when you’re navigating the close confines of a parking lot in a car, driving in a predictable way is absolutely crucial. People need to have some kind of reasonable expectation of other driver’s actions to be safe, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, human drivers do know what to expect from one another.
This video shows a successful Smart Summon experience, but it still makes everyone involved nervous, and requires the owner to intercede at one point out of fear that the tow hitch on his Model X could impact a parked car:
This lack of comfort shows up all the time, even in the ones where there aren’t major problems. Look at this video—the owner is clearly enthusiastic and excited, but the entire process is tense:
It’s stressful because it’s clear the car’s algorithms are barely up to the task—or they at least appear to be that way, filtered through our brains that love to anthropomorphize machines.
That’s still important, even if it’s not entirely rational—a car that displays this sort of timorous, unpredictable driving behavior and one that exhibits behaviors counter to accepted rules—in the speed traveled in certain areas, in how close its willing to get to other cars, that sort of thing—makes other drivers nervous, and nervous drivers make bad decisions.
I don’t care if the car’s AI is incapable of being nervous. These have to fit in well with human driven traffic right now, and so far Smart Summon is not doing a great job of that.
There’s all kinds of questions Smart Summon brings up. Tesla calls this feature a Beta and gives these caveats on their website:
With Smart Summon, customers who have purchased Full Self-Driving Capability or Enhanced Autopilot can enable their car to navigate a parking lot and come to them or their destination of choice, as long as their car is within their line of sight. It’s the perfect feature to use if you have an overflowing shopping cart, are dealing with a fussy child, or simply don’t want to walk to your car through the rain. Customers who have had early access to Smart Summon have told us that it adds both convenience to their trips and provides them with a unique moment of delight when their car picks them up to begin their journey. Those using Smart Summon must remain responsible for the car and monitor it and its surroundings at all times.
I’m not really sure that’s enough. Releasing a Beta of their Netflix streaming or Spotify into the wild is one thing, because if the screen freezes while you’re trying to watch old episodes of Deep Space 9, nobody gets whacked with a slow, lumbering mound of plastic, glass, and steel.
Smart Summon is different. If you’re a Tesla owner and are choosing to try it, you’re involving everyone around you and all their property in your little experiment in not walking to your car.
Forbes investigated the legality of Smart Summon in public parking lots, and I think ended up with some very unsatisfactory answers:
The Smart Summon feature isn’t advanced enough to be considered “autonomous technology,” according to Marty Greenstein, spokesperson for Public Affairs for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and therefore is not governed by AV regulations. That means that no permit is needed. However, the DMV stated in an email that Tesla needs clear and effective communication to the driver about the technology’s capabilities and intended use.
“It’s the same as using Autopilot,” says Greenstein in a phone interview with Forbes. “You can use it like you do any advanced driver assistance feature on public roads.”
But the problem here is that it’s not the same as Autopilot, which requires a driver in the seat, ready to take over, at all times. And if it’s not advanced enough to be “autonomous technology,” why is it okay to send it out, driverless? Legally, this would mean that Ghost Riding the Whip is in the same category as using Smart Summon, and I don’t think anyone is down with ghost riding in parking lots.
We’ve reached out to Tesla for comment, and will update when we hear back.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to edit people out of cars in videos and alert my broker to buy some cheap-ass Tesla stock. I’m about to be very rich, you see.