Background: I am still crazy about my Long Range dual-motor (four-wheel-drive) Tesla Model 3 after a little over two years and 57,075 miles. I paid $6000 extra for “Full Self Driving,” which now costs $10,000. I love the super smooth, rocket like acceleration. I love not leaving toxic fumes for the driver behind me. I love doing my small part not emitting CO2. I love not having to go to gas stations, have my oil changed, or do emission inspections. It’s a great looking car and so much fun to drive. I love giving it a little extra juice to make sure that I make that next traffic light.
The Washington Post recently featured an article which was critical of Tesla for releasing “Feature Complete Full Self Driving” to 12,000 of their customers. They questioned whether it is safe to do so. CleanTechnica‘s Zach Shahan wrote about the article already, but I wanted to take a different approach.
The core question was: is it safe? My short answer: If you have driven safely with the smart cruise control and autosteer that comes with every Tesla, it is possible to drive safely with feature-complete FSD. I have driven safely for a month and ~2,000 miles. I will give you my advice on how to use it safely. [Editor’s note: Some have read the WaPo article and concluded that the writers say Tesla FSD is not safe as implemented. I would say that they posed the question and presented arguments from both sides fairly. But anyway, my full response is here if you want more of that discussion. —Zach Shahan]
What is “Feature Complete” (FC) “Full Self Driving” (FSD)?
Every Tesla comes with Smart Cruise Control. Every Tesla also comes with Autosteer on any road that has yellow lines in the center. I paid $6,000 for FSD when I bought my Tesla Model 3 in 2018. If you purchase any Tesla now and want this, you must pay $10,000 to get it. Since I bought the car, I have had FSD on limited-access roads. That means passing slower moving cars, automatic lane changes using the turn signals, and navigating through even complex big city interchanges from on-ramp to off-ramp to any location in your NAV on Interstate highways and any four-lane road with no cross traffic.
FC FSD, if it works, is the nirvana of automated automobile navigation. That is where the interest really stems. If it ends up working well enough, it will transform transportation.
Two months ago, Tesla started releasing FC FSD to those of us who had paid the $6,000 to $10,000 and had passed a certain safety test. FC FSD goes beyond divided highways and allows automatic driving on country roads and city streets to any address in your NAV. Tesla is the only company that is putting this kind of automation in the hands of thousands of customers — 12,000, according to the Washington Post.
How to Drive Safely with FC FSD
The short answer: Start by using FC FSD at night or places where there is very little traffic. You will soon find out what it does well and when it fails, or when it is too timid to be practical. When the software fails, it fails consistently, so you quickly learn when to turn it off or when to be prepared to intervene immediately. My chief editor, Zach Shahan, finds that it works so poorly that he seldom uses it. I almost always use it. [Editor’s note: If I am driving, I almost always have my wife and/or daughters in the car, and the frequent phantom braking — sometimes very sudden braking with no one even around — is too much of a disruption for them. If it worked better, I’d use it much more — like I used to use Autopilot almost wherever possible. If I drove much more on my own, I might use it a lot more to examine little nuances and improvements, but that does also require quite a lot of patience and willingness to experience blatant errors. —Zach]
How Well Does FC FSD Work? My Full Report!
I put my desired destination into the NAV. I back my car out of the garage on to my street, wait for the steering wheel icon to appear (just like it used to do with regular autosteer when driving down a road with yellow lines in the middle). I pull the right steering wheel stock down twice. Then the car automatically drives to the location in my NAV, whether it’s the nearby Walgreens, Zion National Park 45 miles away, or some destination 200 miles away on country roads, city streets, and Interstate highways.
It is touted as a “Beta” version, which effectively means that you can’t curl up in the back seat. You have to keep one hand giving a little torque on the steering wheel and you have to be ready to intervene in an instant if it screws up.
Also, if you don’t keep your eyes on the road, even looking to the navigation screen to your right or down at your phone for more than ~10 seconds, you get a warning signal. Rarely, it gives you the warning signal even if you are looking at the road. The Model 3 has a cabin camera by the mirror that is watching your face. According to Tesla, that data does not leave the car.
I was able to let it drive my Model 3 from my house in St. George, Utah, 45 miles to Zion National Park with only one slight intervention.
I rarely turn off FC FSD completely. However, it is very timid in some situations, so I have to give it some extra help by pushing on the accelerator. In other situations, it screws up and I have to intervene, then I turn it back on again and proceed with my trip.
For me, after taking Tesla’s infuriating Safety Test for 5 weeks and figuring out how to get my 96 score up to 99, I was finally one of the privileged 12,000 to be able to download the software that makes FC FSD work.
As a retired NASA scientist who was always the first to use any new technology or software, I was dying to get access to FC FSD. I use FC FSD whenever I can. That means I use it whenever it works. I’m willing to wait while it figures out if it’s safe to proceed at a stop sign or make an unprotected turn. This would be infuriating to a driver in a hurry or the car behind you, though.
What Does FC FSD Do Well?
It no longer requires any lines on the road to use Autosteer. This is a big deal — it will now steer automatically on any city street or country road even without yellow lines in the center.
Furthermore, it will now navigate very tight turns. I am a ski instructor at the Brighton Ski Resort at the top of the 18 mile winding road with four hairpin turns up Big Cottonwood Canyon in Utah. With FC FSD, my Tesla will now drive the Canyon with no intervention even when the road is partially snow covered. It slows down automatically from 50 mph to a safe speed on the sharp turns and now also navigates the hairpin turns. I did turn it off when the road was snow covered and slippery, because I didn’t know if it could handle that situation.
Previously, with only Autosteer, it would drive the Canyon but fail on the hairpin turns. Regular Autosteer would always fail on the tight turns in roundabouts.
On a recent return late at night after a Ballet West performance of the Nutcracker in Salt Lake City, my Tesla flawlessly stayed rock steady in the center of the HOV lane, for which I have a special clean fuels permit, for the 30 mile trip back to Lindon. It reduced the fatigue of the trip greatly. (It will do this with ordinary Autosteer as well.)
It also avoids big trucks and trailers parked on your side of the road as well as bicycle riders and pedestrians.
It almost always gets into the proper turn lane at intersections. It gets in the proper left or right turn lanes when turning and picks the proper lane when going straight. [Editor’s note: I have quite a different experience here, as it very often does not get into the correct lane for a turn.]
It usually does turns controlled by traffic signals very well. For example, when it makes a left turn with left turn arrow even when it’s in the second lane from left it keeps the car in the correct lane perfectly. It will also do right turns on red.
It will often make a long complex trip with very few interventions.
When Does FC FSD Fail?
Phantom braking is worse than before.
Above I mentioned that the car will now avoid objects protruding into your traffic lane as well as bicycle riders and pedestrians. I believe that is the reason that the car will quite frequently brake for no apparent reason. It’s very annoying, but it doesn’t brake really hard and hasn’t been a problem for me. However, if someone is tailgating only a few feet behind you, it could cause an accident. Tesla is aware of this and the next version of the software is supposed to address this problem.
Very timid behavior at stop signs, particularly when making unprotected turns.
The car will pull up to a stop sign or even up to 20 ft before it and creep forward at a snail’s pace, presumably looking for traffic. Once it finally does proceed, it may be too slow to avoid late-arriving cross traffic. In both cases, you can intervene by pressing on the accelerator pedal to get it to get moving more quickly. If there is a car behind me or heavy cross traffic, I will turn off FC FSD and drive manually for unprotected turns. Note: It does very well at stop lights and with red/green turn arrows.
Timid behavior at roundabouts (rotaries).
With regular FSD, the car would always fail at roundabouts as well as any turn sharper than one with a 20 mph warning sign. With FC FSD, the car always comes to a dead stop when entering the roundabout, presumably looking for traffic. Then it proceeds quite rapidly to the proper exit from the roundabout. A car following close behind you would not expect this.
Timid behavior when passing a bicycle rider.
Once coming up behind a bicycle rider, the car slowed to the speed of the cyclist for ~10 seconds, then it neatly pulled out across the yellow lines to go around the cyclist. I would have immediately pulled out around the cyclist because there was no oncoming traffic.
Failure to pick the correct traffic lane.
This is not new, this happens with ordinary Autosteer. After crossing an intersection, it occasionally (but repeatably) picks the wrong lane. After a long curving intersection in Pleasant Grove, Utah, it consistently picks the wrong lane. At one intersection in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, it picks a wide bike lane on the other side instead of the traffic lane. Just before the left turn onto my street in Lindon, Utah, it picks the wrong lane too early and gets confused. It’s not too surprising, as the lane markings are very unusual. Bottom line: Pay attention for lane selection, particularly at intersections, and be prepared to intervene.
Some crazy things.
I know a case where the car will consistently run a particular stop sign. It stops at all other stop signs I have encountered.
I have seen cases where the car will miss a turn in the navigation.
If the car fails to get into the turn lane because of heavy traffic, it will miss the turn. In some cases, I have no explanation. In another case, the car will miss the turn from northbound I-15 onto I-215 east in Salt Lake City. This would also occur with ordinary FSD. This is a new special early exit onto a separated turn lane and I believe the maps have not been updated yet. There is also a case in my neighborhood where it took 5 years for the map to recognize a new through street.
Report Bad Behavior
Zach Shahan alerted me to a camera icon in the upper-right-hand screen corner where you can report bad behavior. If the car is creeping forward, it’s quite easy to touch the icon. If the car is moving quickly, it is very difficult to touch the icon.
Software Versions 10.2 to 10.6 (It’s Improving Constantly)
Zach was among the first group to get the software with a safety score of 100. The FC FSD was at version 10.2 at that time. By the time I got my score up to 99, it was at version 10.5. I read that version 10.6 is starting to go out now, but I haven’t been able to download it yet. [Editor’s note: It took some time to get this article published. Fritz surely has the update now and will be writing a followup eventually.]
Bottom line: Tesla is constantly improving the software. However, whether it will respond to a specific act of bad behavior is yet to be determined.
Hopefully, as new versions are released, we will see the mistakes become fewer and fewer.
I suspect that if very few of the ~12,000 drivers with the software have accidents using FC FSD, Tesla will continue to lower the required safety score so that more of those who have paid for it can get it.
What If It Quits?
One time when I got into the car, the steering wheel icon indicating Autopilot is available to implement failed to show up. FC FSD wouldn’t work. Smart Cruise would still work, but not even Autosteer would work. After a hard reboot (holding down the brake pedal and both thumb wheels), it worked normally again.
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