Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Beta Is a Huge Step Toward Autonomy. Risky, Too

In the years it’s been on the market, Tesla has been anything but a rule-follower. Here to disrupt the status quo in the hope of bringing about a much-needed electric revolution, Tesla aims for the stars – and it does so by carving its own path.
Tesla owner lets car drive itself while he chills in the passenger seat 1 photo
Photo: Facebook / Albert Siplen
One could sit for an entire day and debate on whether Tesla is right or wrong in this approach, and still not be finished with it. Critics say Tesla is sacrificing customers’ safety and life in choosing progress by leaps and bounds, instead of cautious baby-steps other industry players take. Supporters say real progress needs to bypass established norms, which most often than not amount to nothing more than bureaucracy hurdles. Accidents can happen either way.

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, there can be little arguing that Tesla is making its boldest move yet in the rollout of the Full Self-Driving Beta upgrade. This update, FSD Beta for short, or Autosteer on City Streets by its official name, allows Tesla cars to be close to self-driving on city streets, at lower speeds.

The first reactions to FSD Beta, which is being offered for the time being to only a handful of drivers from the Tesla early access program, are ecstatic. “Elon, you mad, boy!” says Raj Tesla in the video below, after taking it out for a spin and shocked to see how well it handled.

All fanboy-ism aside, here is a car that’s able to drive itself without intervention (but with mandatory supervision) on narrow city streets, amid traffic, occasionally on roads that don’t even have line markings or dividers. Here is the closest thing to that much-coveted Level 5 Autonomy, which Elon Musk believes will become available to all by the end of 2020.

As was to be expected, pushback didn’t fail to register early on. The leader of the pack is Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE), which has already issued a statement on the dangers of bringing such a driver-assist suite to the public roads as a beta for customers, and of the lack of proper nomenclature. “Systems requiring human driver oversight are not self-driving and should not be called self-driving,” PAVE says, in reference to Musk calling this a “Full Self-Driving” software update.

And herein lies the crux of the problem: Tesla’s seeming reliance on the common sense of owners.

As with Autopilot, Tesla is making sure to shrug off all responsibility for anything that might go wrong with road testing, by saying that the system requires active driver supervision and stressing that it doesn’t make the car autonomous. The name “Full Self-Driving” might suggest otherwise, but the car is not, well, fully self-driving – at least, not yet. Moreover, Tesla says FSD Beta “may do the wrong thing at the worst time” and, as such, it’s up for the drivers to take over, which they can only do if they keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention to the road.

This legally absolves Tesla of fault in a worst-case scenario. Ethically, though, it’s in a very gray area. Tesla is placing its trust in drivers who, like we’ve seen before, may actually throw all common sense out the window in chasing clout. That’s not to say all drivers behave the same, because they don’t; but it takes only a handful of these to turn the rollout into a disaster.

In the end, this is an “only time will tell” matter. If successful, Tesla will have made another giant leap toward full autonomy, but a single proverbial rotten apple could potentially ruin everything. And not just for Tesla, but other automakers working toward the same goal.

So here’s to hoping Tesla drivers / testers have enough common sense to understand that the perfect Instagram shot of them in the passenger seat while the car drives itself is not worth it.

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About the author: Elena Gorgan
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Elena has been writing for a living since 2006 and, as a journalist, she has put her double major in English and Spanish to good use. She covers automotive and mobility topics like cars and bicycles, and she always knows the shows worth watching on Netflix and friends.
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