On October 19, 2016 — five years ago last week — Tesla CEO Elon Musk held a conference call.
“The basic news is that all Tesla vehicles exiting the factory have the hardware necessary for Level 5 autonomy,” Musk said. “Every car we make, on the order of 2,000 cars a week, are shipping now with Level 5, meaning hardware capable of full self-driving, or driverless, capability.”
It was a bold claim, but Musk wasn’t done. He ratcheted up the hype by announcing that Tesla’s goal was to demonstrate a cross-country autonomous drive, Los Angeles to Times Square in New York, “without the need for a single touch, including the charger,” by the end of 2017.
Tesla’s 2016 conference call.
Note that “Level 5” specifically refers to the level as outlined by the Society of Automotive Engineers:
Tesla and FSD: The reaction at the time
The main questions on the call focused on the technicalities.
- How is the new sensor suite different from the old semi-autonomous Autopilot setup? Eight cameras instead of one to give 360-degree visual coverage, compute power increases by a factor of 40, ultrasonic sonar has twice the resolution of the old one, more accurate GPS, and other sensor improvements.
- How will Tesla roll out features? Reach feature parity with the old sensor suite first in around two or three months (in practice it was closer to six months).
- How will regulatory rollout work? “It’s not up to us...it’s not something within our control.”
- How do the cameras deal with snow and rain? Heater elements on all of the camera surfaces, and placed where accumulation is unlikely.
- How safe is it? “Pretty confident” it’s twice as good as a human, but the long-term goal is to reach 10 times better.
Tesla’s announcement made headlines, but there was a degree of skepticism. Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at Edmunds, told The Guardian that buying a self-driving car before regulations catch up was a “vanity purchase.” Rivals could also catch up in that time, so the Tesla would be “obsolete almost as soon as it’s activated for prime time.”
Arun Sundararajan, professor at New York University, told USA Today the announcement was impressive, but the issue was cultural: “Until we figure out all the edge cases and train the cars to deal with them, this regulatory path will be slow.”
Following the announcement, Tesla shared a video of the system in action:
2016 Autopilot in action.
Reddit comments at the time largely focused on how the system needed to improve.
“It was interesting to see the car stop for the two walking ladies but not the man walking the white dog,” wrote a user called AnderBRO2.
But over on the Tesla-focused subreddit, fans were ecstatic about the feature’s big reveal.
“Beautiful, what a day to be alive,” wrote a user called HoratioDUKEz.
“In the coming years, I foresee a bunch of posts of early morning driveway/garage pictures of Tesla owners passed out, drooling, in the driver's seat after their cars drove them home after a night of drinking,” joked a user called lurkity_mclurkington.
Tesla and FSD: What happened after
Earlier this year, a Reddit user made a new post asking for purchase advice. Should they pay the $10,000 extra for the Full Self-Driving suite on the Tesla Model Y?
“I urge you to skip it,” read the highest-rated post. “Elon has completely shredded his reputation on release dates, with literally years of broken promises and not even a hint of self-awareness along the way.”
It’s a mark of how the mood has shifted since the unveiling.
“Like the rest of the automated driving systems (ADS) industry, Tesla has had to face the realization that moving from an interesting proof of concept to a viable product that is even as safe as humans is enormously difficult,” Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst with Guidehouse Insights, tells Inverse.
But Abuelsamid is critical of Musk’s original announcement, which claimed that the cars have the necessary hardware for Level 5 autonomy.
“That statement was a lie five years ago and remains a lie today,” Abuelsamid says. “Tesla has upgraded the computer twice since then and will likely have to again just to reach viable L4.”
Abuelsamid argues that Musk “painted [Tesla] into a corner” and “artificially constrained” engineers by depending entirely on vision without any other backup systems. Tesla can’t add more sensors, he says, because thousands “that bought into the FSD myth would never get what they paid for,” and it would open Tesla up to “massive lawsuits.”
The mood changed so dramatically in part due to a multitude of missed deadlines.
- Musk promised a cross-country drive by the end of 2017 — it still hasn’t happened
- Musk claimed in April 2019 it would have one million self-driving taxis on the road by the end of 2020 — it still hasn’t happened, and the Los Angeles Times noted that just a few weeks after Musk’s announcement, Tesla sold $3 billion in stock to fix its cash woes
- In July 2020, Musk claimed that “we will have the basic functionality for Level 5 autonomy complete this year” — Tesla vehicles still don’t offer Level 5 autonomy
- In January 2021’s earnings call, Musk said he was “highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with a reliability in excess of humans this year” — that also seems unlikely
In this week’s earnings call, which Musk did not attend, executives were once again asked about a timeline. Chief financial officer Zach Kirkhorn struck a more realistic tone: “It's difficult to be specific on the timelines. The Autopilot team is working extremely hard iterating on every version.”
Musk’s numerous missed deadlines have perhaps masked the progress Tesla has made toward full autonomy. The company started granting access to beta versions of the full self-driving software in October 2020, which enables the car to drive from point A to B as long as the driver maintains oversight.
YouTube users have captured the beta software’s incremental improvements over time:
In a letter to the California Department of Motor Vehicles in December 2020, Tesla admitted that both Autopilot and Full Self-Driving are currently more like Level 2 autonomy.
Perhaps in the future, Tesla will successfully perfect its software suite to the point that regulators feel comfortable granting approval for full, hands-off autonomous driving. Indeed, demonstration videos with the beta software have shown users are impressed.
But even if Tesla delivers now, it will be hard to shake the impression that Musk set wildly optimistic deadlines in the early years. Buyers burned by those deadlines, ones that spent thousands to pre-order the feature on the assumption it would arrive soon, likely won’t forget that in a hurry.