Elon Musk's self-driving-car project is on a road to nowhere

  • Elon Musk has made developing autonomous driving technology one of Tesla's fundamental goals.

  • For years, he's said that Teslas are just a software update away from driving themselves.

  • Some automated driving experts think Tesla won't solve self-driving in the near future.

Elon Musk has spent much of the last decade assuring and reassuring customers and investors that driverless Teslas are right around the corner. Spoiler alert: You still can't take a snooze at the wheel or watch Netflix in traffic.

There was the press conference in 2016 when Musk predicted that Tesla would send a car from Los Angeles to New York City without human input by the following year. Then in 2019, he said he felt "very confident" that, by 2020, Tesla owners who bought the pricey Full Self-Driving option would be able to dispatch their cars as robotaxis and rake in passive income from their couches.

"Today it's financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla," Musk said at an event touting the carmaker's autonomous-vehicle development in 2019. "It'll be like owning a horse in three years."

That revolutionary software update never came, and by 2022 the goalpost for bringing self-driving cars to the masses had shifted to 2023. Meanwhile, Musk has doubled down on the importance of driverless tech, going so far as to say the carmaker will be "worth basically zero" if it can't crack autonomous driving. Over the years, Tesla has hiked the price of Full Self-Driving to a whopping $15,000.

While it's made strides and released an audacious prototype version of Full Self-Driving that owners are testing around the country, Tesla still hasn't delivered on its core promise of making cars that drive themselves. Some automated driving experts think it won't happen anytime soon.

Full Self-Driving is far from actually being self-driving, some say

Despite its branding, Tesla's Full Self-Driving Beta currently requires total driver supervision, just like cruise control or smarter features like Autopilot. Unlike those systems, which work on the highway, Full Self-Driving aims to navigate a Tesla from a starting point to a chosen destination in all environments, from rural roads to chaotic city intersections and everywhere in between. Once software updates improve the system sufficiently, the idea is to convert the driver into a passenger.

But according to Phil Koopman, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in autonomous vehicles, Full Self-Driving doesn't look nearly reliable enough to function safely without a driver, given the types of simple mistakes it's still making. If the system were as close to ready as Musk claims, it would stumble only once in a blue moon and exclusively in freak scenarios that might trip up a human driver, he told Insider.

That's not yet the case. For all the impressive-looking videos shared online of the Beta smoothly traversing intersections and roundabouts, plenty of clips show a jerky system struggling with routine driving tasks like slowing for speed bumps and choosing the correct lane. That's not to mention numerous recent crashes involving Tesla's automated systems and stopped emergency vehicles that are under federal investigation.

"Tesla keeps saying next year, and I still don't see any reason to believe that promise," Koopman said. "There's no reason to believe that something magic will happen this year that failed to happen the year before and the year before and the year before."

Tesla's goal to flip a switch and deploy Full Self-Driving everywhere, without limits, is beyond a stretch and won't happen safely in the near future, Daniel McGehee, director of the University of Iowa's Driving Safety Research Institute, told Insider. Some companies, like Alphabet's Waymo and GM's Cruise, have launched autonomous taxis in the US, but only in specific parts of certain cities. Starting with a confined, predictable environment and expanding from there is the right move, McGehee said.

"Automation is going to be incremental and not just ready one day," he said.

Tesla did not return a request for comment.

Musk's big bet on cameras

Tesla does things differently. That mentality started with its bet on electric vehicles and extends to the very core of its approach to autonomous driving.

While rivals like Cruise and Waymo use detailed maps and an extensive array of sensors to help their vehicles navigate the world, Musk wants to simplify things. If humans can drive with eyes and a brain, cars should be able to drive themselves using cameras and computing power, Musk argues.

Koopman calls that a "completely ridiculous analogy," given that machine-learning programs just do statistical analysis and can't truly understand situations like humans can. He thinks Tesla needs to significantly alter its approach to make self-driving happen.

"Why would you want to tie one hand behind your back doing something that's nearly impossible?" Koopman said.

Likewise, McGehee says self-driving cars need a combination of overlapping sensors — whether that's cameras, radar, lidar, or ultrasonic sensors — to move through the world safely. He stresses the importance of redundancy to students in his automated vehicle engineering course.

To be sure, others aren't so quick to write off Tesla's way of doing things. Alain Kornhauser, director of the program in transportation at Princeton University, supports the vision-only approach and thinks Tesla is well on its way to autonomous operation. But, he says, self-driving anywhere all the time isn't realistic.

What do owners think?

Musk's ambitious promises and the real-world performance of Full Self-Driving have left some Tesla owners — who paid anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for the feature over the years — feeling frustrated and disappointed.

Kenji, a 2019 Tesla Model X owner who withheld his last name to avoid online harassment from Tesla fans, said he shelled out for Full Self-Driving after hearing Musk talk up the system's imminent potential. Years later, the system frequently makes unsettling mistakes, leaving Kenji feeling "duped." Reporting that Tesla staged an infamous 2016 video touting its autonomous tech added insult to injury, he said.

"I almost wish I could get a refund," he told Insider. "Because it's not ready, and I don't think it's going to be ready for a while."

Nick Nicastro, a Tesla Model Y owner in Ohio, called the software "absolutely phenomenal" but said it occasionally botches basic maneuvers, forcing him to intervene. He's satisfied with the feature, but reckons it may be another decade or more before Tesla drivers can kick back while their cars do the work.

"As good as it is, the idea of me not having a steering wheel there is many, many, many years away," he said.

Are you a Tesla owner, employee, or FSD Beta tester with a story to share? Contact this reporter at tlevin@insider.com

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