Elon Musk has a long history of over-promising where autonomous driving is concerned. The Tesla CEO announced a date when he expects Teslas to be able to achieve various levels of autonomy on several occasions, only to completely miss the mark.
This time Musk expects Tesla’s Full Self Driving Autopilot to be "safer than a human" by the end of this year. Or at least, that's what he said during Tesla's Q4 2021 earnings call.
"I would be shocked if we do not achieve Full Self-Driving safer than a human this year. I would be shocked," Musk said. "Being safer than a human is a low standard, not a high standard. People are often distracted, tired, texting … it’s remarkable that we don’t have more accidents."
However, given Musk's track record, our advice is not to get too excited by that prospect. Tesla has already had to publicly admit (opens in new tab) Musk has exaggerated about Autopilot's capabilities in the past. More recently, Tesla has said that Autopilot may do "the wrong thing at the worst time", which is why it's so important to have a human driver be ready to take over at a moment's notice.
'Full Self Driving' is just a brand name, and the feature is not the human-free autonomous driving that the automotive industry is working towards. It's just a more advanced version of the Basic Autopilot system, and still firmly remains a Level 2 autonomous driver assistance tool.
Confused? You're not the only one, and Tesla has been accused of misleading drivers (opens in new tab) this way in the past.
Basic Autopilot comes as standard on all Tesla cars, but only offers a few basic features. The car controls speed and braking, as well as steering within a lane on long roads like highways. Full Self Driving can do everything Basic Autopilot can do, as well as automatic lane changing, navigation on highways, traffic light and stop sign control, plus autopark and summon features.
FSD is available for an additional $12,000, or a $199 a month subscription. “Good drivers” who pass inspection by Tesla’s algorithms can also join the beta program, which gives them access to software updates before they roll out to the general population. While ahead of the curve, this still doesn't mean your car can drive itself
It’s not entirely clear what Musk is expecting the Full Self Driving system will be able to accomplish by the year's end. According to the Tesla website (opens in new tab) there’s one feature designated as coming soon: Autosteer on city streets. That would presumably allow your Tesla to navigate and steer on urban roads without driver input.
However, there are likely to be a lot of challenges there, considering how much more complicated city streets are compared to highways and other similar stretches of road. There are more drivers around, too, going in various different directions, which only complicates matters.
We can be pretty confident that Full Self Driving will not hit Level 4 autonomy, the minimum point in which a car can independently drive itself, by year's end. So we're not expecting the kind of system that lets you take a nap in the back seat while the car is in motion.
Autonomous cars face a bunch of legal and technological hurdles before they can be made a reality. Musk himself has admitted that in the past, and reiterated that autonomous car tech has challenges to overcome.
"Being better than a human is relatively straightforward, frankly," Musk said to investors, "but how do you be 1000 percent better, 10,000 percent better? That’s much harder."
So don’t expect that to happen before the end of this year, no matter what Tesla may call its software.
That isn’t to say Tesla can’t make big improvements to the FSD software over the next 11 months. But given Musk’s track record with over-promising and under-delivering, it’s always wise to stay a little bit skeptical.