Tesla opened up about its progress on its fully autonomous driving solution, dubbed Full Self Driving, on its Q3 2019 earnings call today. CEO Elon Musk tentatively said that, “it still does appear that we will still be in Early Access release of Full Self Driving by the end of this year.”
The news did not come with his usual dose of full assurance and made it clear that while Full Self Driving is clearly under active development, the ability for Tesla to deliver it as a product by the end of this year is a bit of a stretch. His caution is well placed, as Full Self Driving (FSD) must bridge a number of life and death scenarios for it to move into production. Identifying and stopping at red lights, stop signs, yield signs, and more can all result in fatalities if not delivered perfectly. There is no room for failure in these areas.
Navigating in parking lots and along unmarked or poorly marked neighborhoods is also extremely challenging compared to the relatively benign environments of freeways, merges, on-ramps, and off-ramps.
A Financial Windfall
Delivering Full Self Driving is a massive financial opportunity for Tesla looking forward, but also allows it to realize a boatload of revenue on cars that have already been sold. Looking ahead, Tesla is aggressively looking to make money from FSD. Furthermore, deferred revenue from the FSD features is a liability Tesla is increasingly able to turn into revenue (for a while). In the Q3 2019 earnings letter, Tesla said, “We also expect to gradually release nearly $500M of accumulated deferred revenue tied to Autopilot and Full Self Driving features.”
The opportunity is not just for Tesla, but for owners as well. On the earnings call today, Musk spoke to the massive increase in value — “that transition, that sort of flipping of the switch from a car that is not a robotaxi to robotaxi will probably be the largest step change increase in asset value in history, by far.” For many existing Tesla owners, banking on Musk’s bold proclamations for the future is nothing new, but some feel burned on the thousands of dollars put down years ago for Tesla’s elusive Full Self Driving feature.
What Does “Feature Complete” Look Like?
It must be a bit of a relief that Musk is promising to deliver a “feature complete” FSD by the end of this year to early adopters. That is surely encouraging, but the switch to belief from disbelief will ultimately flip for real when Tesla puts its money where its mouth is and delivers FSD to the first customers.
But what does a “feature complete” FSD solution really look like? I’m glad you asked, because that was one of the questions on the call today. Elon unpacked it like this:
“Feature complete means the car is able to drive from one’s house to work most likely without interventions. It will still be supervised, but it will be able to drive. It will fill in the gap from low-speed autonomy … you have low-speed autonomy with Summon, you’ve got high-speed autonomy on the highway, and you have intermediate-speed autonomy which really just means traffic lights and stop signs. Feature complete means it will likely be able to do that without intervention, without human intervention, but it will still be supervised.”
It is clear that Tesla has to solve everything from the beginning and end of a drive with its Smart Summon and Smart Park solutions. It is unclear how many steps it will take Tesla to implement that. In the end, all of these actions will eventually merge into a valet-type product that will park and retrieve a vehicle from a parking lot or parking space. Autopilot has been working on freeways for ages now, with Navigate on Autopilot integrating freeway driving with a destination from the navigation system for an experience that is all-but autonomous today.
When the solution is finally stitched together from a parking space all the way to the garage, though, that is just the first step in the other half of the journey for Tesla’s Full Self Driving solution. “There’s the three major levels to autonomy,” Musk said on the conference call. “There’s the car being able to be autonomous, but requiring supervision and intervention at times. That’s feature complete.” Even then, the car won’t be able to do everything all the time. “It doesn’t mean every scenario, everywhere on earth. It means most of the time.”
That’s the point Tesla hopes to achieve by the end of this year, or in the next few weeks, for “early access program” members. At that point, it will take some time for Tesla to refine the system, sharpening its skills into a finely tuned solution that can do anything, anywhere — the second step of a three-step process, or as Musk put it, “Then there’s another level which is from a Tesla standpoint where we think it is safe enough to be driven without supervision.”
Ultimately, Tesla and owners can decide what they are comfortable with and Tesla will bring that data to regulators to hopefully reach the third and final step in the process at the appropriate time. “The third level would be when regulators are also convinced the car can be driven autonomously without supervision,” Musk said. “Those are three different levels.” For now, the ball is in Tesla’s court as it works to stitch its end-to-end FSD solution together. The future is anything but certain, but it is clear that Tesla continues to be on a tear to deliver the fully autonomous driving system that will drive the company — and society — into the future of transport.
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