Elon Musk frames his company’s aggressive push into driverless car technology as a moral imperative. Along with sustainable electric transportation, he views autonomy as a core element of Tesla Inc.’s “fundamental goodness.”
Humans will be freed of the tedium of driving, he told Wall Street last year. Millions of lives will be saved.
There is another incentive for Musk to put driverless cars on the road, though. The day he does that, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of stored-up revenue become eligible for a trip straight to Tesla’s perpetually stressed bottom line.
All Tesla cars built since late 2016 are equipped with sensors and other hardware that allow them to function without a human driver at the wheel, according to the company. Since then, buyers of Tesla Models S, X and 3 have been able to pay $3,000 to $6,000 to eventually get what Musk calls Full Self-Driving technology, or FSD. (The price will soon rise to $7,000.)
Tesla has sold approximately 500,000 cars over that period. The electric-vehicle website Electrek has estimated that 40% of customers choose the FSD option. Owners who haven’t can buy it when available, albeit at a higher price.
Tesla cars will just need new lines of computer code beamed into the car to go full robot when the software is ready, the company says. Musk is aiming to make that happen by the end of the year.
But is Tesla anywhere close to ready with fully driverless technology? And what would that even mean?
The answers concern many in the auto industry, and not just for reasons of competitiveness. Auto executives worry that premature deployment of driverless technology would result in crashes, injuries and deaths, and rile up politicians and regulators. It could also damage public trust in the technology — which surveys show is already low — and set the field back by years, they fear.
On Tesla’s website, where FSD is offered for sale, the company says that automatic driving will be available on city streets by the end of the year. FSD will recognize stop signs and traffic lights, it says. And Musk is aiming to release a self-parking feature by the end of the year. The technology, originally scheduled for a May release, would allow a car to drive itself around a parking lot, find an empty spot and park.
Tesla does not say how a car equipped with FSD might respond to a child crossing the street chasing a ball, or whether it would swerve over a double yellow line to avoid a bicyclist. It is “edge cases” such as these that Waymo — the autonomous-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, and the acknowledged industry leader — and others say are taking them so much time to perfect.
Asked to provide a timeline for Tesla’s transition to totally driverless cars, a Tesla spokeswoman pointed to the Autopilot section of its website where the company discusses future use of Tesla cars without driver supervision. As for what Tesla means by “full” self-driving, she offered the following quote from a recent presentation by Musk:
“There’s three steps to self-driving. There’s being feature complete, then there’s being feature complete to the degree where we think that the person in the car does not need to pay attention. And then there’s being, at a reliability level, where we also convince regulators that that is true.”
The lack of clarity on FSD’s capabilities and timeline concerns the National Safety Council, a nonprofit health and safety advocacy group. “Most people don’t understand the technology that’s already in their cars,” said council Vice President Kelly Nantel. “It’s confusing to drivers. When you call something Full Self-Driving or Autopilot (Tesla’s driver-assist technology) you give the impression that the vehicle has capabilities it doesn’t have.”
Moving the millions collected from FSD customers onto Tesla’s bottom line could be enough to ensure a profit in the fourth quarter, which Musk told stock analysts last month he’s “pretty confident” Tesla can do. That would be huge for a company that is struggling to prove it’s not a perpetual money loser. Tesla hasn’t produced an annual profit since its founding in 2003. In the second quarter of this year, Tesla sold a record 95,000 cars but lost $389 million.
As of the second quarter, Tesla listed $1.18 billion in deferred revenue. The company doesn’t break out how much of that is for FSD. But if Electrek’s estimate is correct, then more than 200,000 car buyers have paid somewhere from $600 million to more than $1 billion for the option.
There are other advantages to flipping on the self-driving switch. Musk has said the “take rate” — the number of owners who will want the option — will jump when Full Self-Driving goes live.
Musk is known for his aggressive claims of actual and future Tesla technology. He boasted in April, for instance, that the company would have the first of a fleet of robotaxis on the road next year.
Some of the company’s claims have landed it in hot water. Consumer Reports found that a new Navigate feature that allowed unassisted lane changes “doesn’t work very well” and “could create potential safety risks.” Bloomberg reported last week that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent Tesla a cease-and-desist letter in October focused on a Tesla website claim that its newest car, the Model 3, has “the lowest probability of injury of all cars the safety agency has tested.” The safety agency also alerted the Federal Trade Commission to Tesla’s claims.
Even Tesla’s instruction on current technology seems problematic. A few weeks ago, Tesla’s head of manufacturing, Jerome Guillen, said that the “No. 1” reason for owner visits to Tesla service centers is to learn “how to use Autopilot.” Musk himself has been shown several times driving with his hands off the wheel while using Autopilot — most famously in a “60 Minutes” segment last year — even though the Tesla driver’s handbook warns against that.
Tesla has not made clear what it means by Full Self-Driving. The term seems to imply full driverless automation. But when asked for clarification, Tesla’s public relations department sent this quote from a recent Musk presentation on the subject: “We expect to be confident enough from our standpoint to say that we think people do not need to touch the wheel, look out of the window.”