FSD: “Future” Self-Driving

Nov 4, 2019   

While Tesla claims they are still on-track to release a “feature-complete” version of Full Self-Driving by the end of the year, we investigate the likelihood of autonomy becoming a reality sooner rather than later.

Let’s start with Smart Summon, an imperative building block of Full Self-Driving Capability which will be combined with Autopilot and recognition of stop lights and signs to make Full Self-Driving what Musk considers to be “feature complete.” Smart Summon enables a Tesla to be summoned from anywhere in a parking lot. Owners simply have to mark their destination on a map (i.e. the entrance of a mall) and the car will drive itself to that point. There is one major caveat: owners absolutely still have to monitor their car at all times and be ready to stop the vehicle, which limits a lot of ideal uses for Smart Summon. Over time, the feature is expected to expand and improve to the point that an owner will be able to summon a Tesla from a parking lot in California to meet them in New York. However, we feel the current version of Smart Summon demonstrates that that type of functionality is a few years away.

Numerous videos from owners have demonstrated that Smart Summon is far from perfect, and is still unequivocally considered to be beta software. The feature doesn’t properly recognize curbs, parking lines, and in many cases will only react to obstacles when they’re directly in the car’s field of view. For other drivers and pedestrians not expecting the unpredictability of Smart Summon, it can cause issues. It is clear that the feature is not as polished and refined as it could be even in this early release state, even if it is impressive that it was recently made available in Tesla’s V10 software update.

Regardless, the tiny handful of parking lot accidents caused by Smart Summon (which in most cases weren’t explicitly the Tesla’s fault) represent an an insignificant number compared to the fact that over a million successful Smart Summons have been completed to date. Despite Smart Summon operating at a level of distinct inexperience, it is supposed to get better over time as Tesla integrates data from its fleet machine learning. In other words, each Smart Summon helps make the feature better just as every mile on Autopilot helps Tesla learn how to improve and integrate the data into the rest of the Full Self-Driving suite.

The progression of machine learning will be a major indicator of the overall progress of Full Self-Driving. If Tesla is able to substantially improve Smart Summon with each new software release, then the rest of the Full Self-Driving suite which is largely dependent on miles driven by Tesla’s fleet will be ready sooner than expected as it would be a sign that Tesla is able to successfully interpolate and apply the data learned.

Once Full Self-Driving is “feature complete,” Tesla anticipates that are two more levels of autonomy beyond that: a level where Tesla is confident that Full Self-Driving can be operated without supervision (which will open up the possibility of a Robotaxi), and the ultimate level where regulators are also confident and grant it full approval.

While Tesla claims that Full Self-Driving should be “feature complete” later this year for owners in the company’s opt-in Early Access Program (available to all owners that have purchased Full Self-Driving Capability), we think that timeline is a tad optimistic. While the features may be there, they will most likely operate as pieces of a whole rather than as a suite of software that can truly take a driver from home to work without any further intervention.

We, along with experts that have experience in third-party autonomy solutions, estimate the timeline for Full Self-Driving to be about 2-3 years away. It’s unlikely we’ll see a publicly-available Robotaxi prior to 2021.

For a point of comparison for the current Full Self-Driving timeline, Musk Tweeted in 2016 that they would conduct a test of a Tesla being Summoned from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York then later confirmed that it would take place by the end of 2017. That test has yet to occur. To Musk’s credit, Tesla wants to make sure the software is able to navigate on its own. While it would be possible to essentially fake the test by programming a specific route, the company has decided not to take that approach. So we’ll continue waiting until Full Self-Driving is truly ready so the test can be an accurate representation of what customers can expect. Perhaps Tesla will do it without fanfare and announce its successful maiden voyage after it’s already completed.

Full Self-Driving is critical to Tesla’s present and future success after the company advertised that every Tesla sold from late 2016 and on will be capable of true Full Self-Driving. There is potential that Tesla has been holding back on its software releases and that Full Self-Driving will be ready sooner. If the company does release it this year, they will be first to market which will be immensely valuable for Tesla as well as current owners of cars with Autopilot 2.0/2.5/3.0 hardware. That’s a major stretch though, and requires a bit of imagination to consider Full Self-Driving as being available this year by the expected definition of the term.

Other manufacturers such as BMW estimate that they will have level 3 autonomy available on select vehicles in 2021. Level 3 is not unlike Navigate on Autopilot which is available to Tesla owners today as it still requires supervision and is only capable of driving in certain circumstances (such as on freeways). Level 5 is Tesla’s goal, so to release a complete Full Self-Driving functionality within the same timeframe that competitors are just starting to catch up would be revelatory to the industry.

Full Self-Driving Capability can be considered for all intent and purposes to be Future Self-Driving Capability. Autonomy will be available eventually, but we would advise customers to remain patient and not adhere too strictly to Tesla’s timelines: they’re more than likely overly optimistic. Nonetheless, the company could surprise the industry if they are able to make Full Self-Driving feature-complete at a level that no longer requires a driver’s supervision next year even if we expect it to be more widely-available in 2021, if not 2022.

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