by Craig Trudell and Dana Hull | bloomberg
The wait is almost over for some Tesla customers to gain access to the driver-assistance technology the company has marketed in controversial ways — as long as they’re on their best behavior.
Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said on Friday that the electric-car maker will roll out an updated version of its full self-driving beta software, which has so far only been available to about 2,000 people.
People with access to this constantly-updating software — a mix of Tesla employees and ardent Musk fans — have been honing a system for nearly a year, with the company charging customers as much as $10,000 sometime in the future. Tesla says the system, often referred to as an FSD, is designed to someday handle short and long-distance trips without driver intervention.
It’s unclear how widespread the release will be due to the curveball thrown by Musk earlier this month. The CEO tweeted that the download button customers will see on Friday will request car owners’ permission for Tesla to assess their driving behavior for seven days. If the company considers the behavior to be good, it will provide access to the FSD beta.
Extended reach and state of wonder are the latest twists and turns involving FSD and Autopilot, the driver-assistance system that has divided Tesla watchers for years. Fostering Musk’s belief that Tesla is a self-driving leader has helped make it the world’s most valuable automaker of all time. But others have seen it as a reckless and misleading approach to implementing technology that is not ready. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently launched an investigation into its second autopilot malfunction since 2016.
“This is another example of Tesla marching on its own drum. It’s like, damn torpedo, full speed ahead,” Gene Munster, co-founder of investment firm Loop Ventures, said by phone. “Some regulatory concerns and pushback aside, Tesla is determined to move forward on its own agenda.”
NHTSA began investigating Autopilot in August after nearly a dozen collisions at crash scenes involved first-responder vehicles. The regulator – which has the authority to recall defective cars and orders – is assessing the technologies and methods Tesla uses to monitor, assist and enforce driver engagement when using Autopilot . It is also looking into the way the system detects objects and incidents on the road and how it reacts.
Musk first announced his plans to sell FSDs in October 2016, a few months after he told a tech conference that he considered autonomous driving to be “basically a solved problem.”
In April 2019, he predicted that after about a year, Tesla’s technology would advance to such an extent that drivers would not need to pay attention.
In March of this year, however, Musk announced that Tesla had canceled the FSD beta from drivers who didn’t pay enough attention to the road.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the new head of another investigator for auto accidents in the US, has caused an uproar with such a mixed message.
“Whether it’s Tesla or someone else, it’s up to these manufacturers to decide what their technology does and doesn’t,” Jennifer Homendy told Bloomberg News in her first interview since taking the oath last month.
Homendy has since called Tesla’s use of the term full self-driving “misleading and irresponsible” and expressed concerns about the FSD’s readiness to be used by more drivers on public roads to the Wall Street Journal.
“For investors, this is terrifying,” said Taylor Ogan, CEO of Boston-based hedge fund Snow Bull Capital, who has closely watched videos of FSD beta testers demonstrating the software’s shortcomings several times. “It’s like the CEO of a pharmaceutical company expanding the testing pool of an experimental drug that the FDA is investigating for potentially hurting people.”
Tara Goddard, an urban planning professor at Texas A&M University who is researching how auto-safety technology and automation is being marketed to consumers, questions whether Tesla’s seven-day measure of drivers’ behavior The assessment is enough to screen vulnerable users.
She pointed to a recent blog post by a Tesla enthusiast that hinted at car owners about how the company might judge their driving.
“People are already saying how you play the system to make sure you can pick it up and use it,” Goddard said. “I’m just worried that we’re going to use it in places where it’s not really ready to be used – and not by professional drivers.”