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Autonomous Vehicles

Senators & Tesla Still Tussling Over Autopilot & “Full Self Driving”

Do Tesla Autopilot and “Full Self Driving” (which is not full self-driving) present a public safety risk or not?

Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) wrote Tesla “Technoking” Elon Musk on Feb. 8 about some “significant concerns” they had about the electric carmaker’s Autopilot and Full Self Driving (FSD) systems, which have gotten plenty of negative attention from regulators in recent months. To its credit, Tesla defended its advanced driver assistance systems but also acknowledged that they do require “constant monitoring and attention of the driver.”

Nuance Doesn’t Play Well in America

GMC Hummer EV at the Chicago Auto Show.

GMC Hummer EV at the Chicago Auto Show.

Subtlety, nuance, and wit have never been the strong suits of American culture. American culture prefers moral clarity — stuff like “us vs. them” or “right against wrong,” and, crucially, “good or bad.” I don’t mean for that to read as if I think Americans are dumb, but I do think that there’s a certain demographic who will read “Tesla Autopilot requires the constant monitoring and attention of the driver” and walk away thinking that it doesn’t work.

Obviously, Autopilot works. As a safety feature that could significantly cut down on the more than 328,000 annual car crashes caused by “sleepy drivers” every year, it should be celebrated. But, as Tesla is quick to point out, Autopilot is not Full Self Driving, and it does not make a car autonomous.

I’ll repeat that for those of you in the back by quoting Tesla Support directly. “Autopilot is a hands-on driver assistance system that is intended to be used only with a fully attentive driver. It does not turn a Tesla into a self-driving car nor does it make a car autonomous.”

Tesla has made such statements dozens of times in recent years, yet some critics — like these senators — are still adamant that Tesla’s marketing (which inherently include Elon Musk’s tweets) is overselling what Tesla offers and could make drivers complacent and lead to safety concerns. Perhaps the fact that the $10,000 consumer package is still called “Full Self Driving” irks them.

Education is Key

self driving volvo

Autonomous driving, courtesy Volvo.

For its part, Tesla seems to understand that public education on autonomous driving features is lacking. In a March 4 letter to the senators, Tesla’s senior director of public policy and business development, Rohan Patel, said that Tesla “understands the importance of educating owners on the capabilities of Autopilot and FSD Capability.”

However, the senators who received Patel’s letter remain on the offensive. In a statement to Reuters, the senators called it “just more evasion and deflection from Tesla. Despite its troubling safety track record and deadly crashes, the company seemingly wants to carry on with business as usual.” Talk of “deadly crashes” never seems to put those number in context, though. Many have criticized Tesla’s self-reported safety data for not offering valid comparisons or use of rigorous statistics like regression analysis, but there is no comparable anti-Tesla analysis we’ve seen that demonstrates Teslas using Autopilot or FSD are less safe than other cars on the road.

Tesla launched its FSD Beta more than a year ago, which enables Tesla vehicles to navigate city streets more or less on their own. The FSD deployment has rolled out to some 60,000 users, but has sparked criticism that it has effectively enrolled non-Tesla owners in its Beta program without their consent and is risking public safety by testing its technology with potentially negligent drivers on public roads.

Despite billions of relatively safe miles, Tesla is facing down a number of safety investigations, including one for phantom braking. In a statement, the senators wrote that, “complaints and investigations paint a troubling picture: Tesla repeatedly releases software without fully considering its risks and implications, creating grave dangers for all on the roads.” Under similar pressures, Tesla agreed in January to “recall” more than 50,000 vehicles to revise software in order prevent vehicles from performing “rolling stops,” which Reuters at least somewhat disingenuously presented as “disregarding stop signs.”

Are these real issues or hyped up fear mongering? What do you guys think — are the senators in league with someone else to generate Tesla “hit pieces” in some kind of concerted effort, or is this simply explained as “two old dudes don’t understand robots, write letters?” Scroll on down to the comments and let us know.

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I've been involved in motorsports and tuning since 1997, and have been a part of the Important Media Network since 2008. You can find me here, working on my Volvo fansite, riding a motorcycle around Chicago, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.


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