Tesla's 'full self-driving' mode faces close scrutiny as rollout finally begins

Margi Murphy
·3-min read
Elon Musk
Elon Musk

After years of promises and customers having paid thousands for the privilege, Tesla eventually allowed a small number of cars to make use of a controversial system that lets the company's electric cars drive themselves

The introduction of the futuristic technology was instantly met with regulatory and public scrutiny, with Tesla garnering further criticism after admitting that the system does not actually make its vehicles fully autonomous. 

Elon Musk told analysts and reporters on Wednesday that the company was switching on the long awaited “full self-driving” function for a small group of beta testers with a wider release expected to reach one million cars by the end of the year. 

Overnight, excitable videos of the lucky few who had the feature switched appeared on YouTube, showing passengers jumping in their seats and yelling in surprise as their Tesla changed lanes and navigated around other cars without them touching the controls. 

"Elon you're a mad man," one said. "To see this working without lane markers on residential streets was a little freaky," said another. "But it worked, and it worked so well". 

Musk’s “slow” and “cautious” approach might be welcomed by regulators, but some customers have been patiently waiting - and paying - for the technology since the eccentric founder first promised it, missing several self-imposed deadlines in the meantime. Tesla started offering the $8,000 - or £6,800 in the UK - option since 2016, saying it will be delivered in a future software update.

This week''s announcement coincided with a marketing push that is certain to further rattle even the most loyal of Tesla customers, with the company warning customers that they had just days to buy the system until its price increased further to $10,000.

Despite initial excitement, company watchers were quick to point out small print on Tesla's own website stated that "full self-driving" should not be considered autonomous driving, and that active human supervision is necessary at all times. 

Doubts over its legitimacy were at the back of Musk 's mind. He told investors he is already planning a robotaxi system where one person is in control of a fleet of 10 cars which could be used as a ride hailing service. 

US regulators promised to pay close attention, with the National Highway Traffic Safeway Administration on Thursday warning that it “will not hesitate to take action to protect the public against unreasonable risks to safety”. 

The watchdog has faulted the company for fatal acccidents in the US that involved Tesla's autopilot, a less-complete driver assistance system that follows major roads.

The agency, which oversees the safety of roads in the US, put another dampener on beta test by claiming that it had been briefed on the beta test and found that “no vehicle available for purchase today is capable of driving itself”.A 20-year-old was last month charged with napping behind the wheel of a Tesla driving at 93mph

Unlike Google’s driverless car company Waymo and General Motors’ Cruise, Tesla has yet to receive a permit to put fully self-driving cars on public roads in California, where it makes most of its sales and its headquarters reside. 

Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, an organisation made up of competitor autonomous car companies including Google, General Motors and Ford, also criticised Tesla’s approach. 

“Public road testing is a serious responsibility and using untrained consumers to validate beta-level software on public roads is dangerous and inconsistent with existing guidance and industry norms,” it said.

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