Surprise! Tesla Leak Admits Elon Musk Exaggerated About 'Full Self-Driving'

And this is not the first time this has happened.
Brad Bergan
Elon Musk at a Tesla conference.Steve Jurvetson / Flickr

CEO Tesla Elon Musk has exaggerated the capabilities of his company's nascent driver-assist system, according to an unofficial statement the all-electric automaker's director of Autopilot software made to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, in a memo obtained and released by PlainSite, a legal transparency group.

This is the latest evidence of a cognitive disparity between what Musk tells the world about Autopilot and the real-world capabilities of the self-driving software. And it comes as Tesla faces greater scrutiny following the crash of one of its vehicles without anyone in the driver's seat — which left two men dead.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk's claims on autonomy aren't up to snuff

"Elon's tweet does not match engineering reality per CJ," read the memo from the California DMV, in a comment about its March 9 conference call with Tesla officials — which Director of Autopilot Software CJ Moore attended. "Tesla is at Level 2 currently." Level 2 status translates to a semi-automated driving capacity, where human drivers still need to supervise the vehicle's operation. During a Jan. earnings call, Musk told Tesla investors he was "highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year." It seems Moore mistook this earnings call commentary as a tweet, in his relating to the DMV. In Oct. 2020, Tesla revealed a new product it called a "Full Self-Driving" (FSD) beta to people who owned a Tesla as part of its Early Access Program. The update granted drivers access to Autopilot's partially automated driver-assist system on both local roads and streets in the city.

Tesla's Early Access program is a testing platform designed to eliminate errors in the software. And in the DMV memo, the company said 824 vehicles were enrolled in the pilot program as of March 9 — 753 of which were employees, leaving just 71 non-employees involved. Musk said his company was moving forward with software updates "very cautiously." And this makes sense, since drivers still need to keep their hands on the steering wheel, and remain ready to resume control of the vehicle at any moment. But what makes less sense are Elon Musk's idealistic predictions for his vehicles to reach full autonomy, especially when his own engineering staff tells another story to regulators.

For now, Tesla's cars are 'self-driving' in name only

Tesla's cars probably won't make it to Level 5 (L5) autonomy — which means its cars can't handle driving anywhere, in any conditions, without any human supervision whatsoever, when 2021 comes to a close, according to the Tesla official's unofficial statement to the DMV. "The ratio of driver interaction would need to be in magnitude of 1 or 2 million miles per driver interaction to move into higher levels of automation. Tesla indicated that Elon is extrapolating on the rates of improvement when speaking about L5 capabilities," read the DMV statement.

"Tesla couldn't say if the rate of improvement would make it to L5 by end of calendar year," it added. To many, it comes as a small surprise that Tesla's private words with the DMV run contrary to Musk's public pronouncements about Tesla's autonomous abilities. Another comms statement shared by PlainSite from last December — between the California DMV's Chief of the Autonomous Vehicles Branch Miguel Acosta and the company's Associate General Counsel Eric Williams suggested a similar disparity. "[N]either Autopilot nor FSD Capability is an autonomous system, and currently no comprising feature, whether singularly or collectively, is autonomous or makes our vehicles autonomous," he said. Much is expected from Tesla's touted autonomous capabilities. But for now, the company's "self-driving" cars do not live up to the name.

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