DETROIT (AP) – Earlier this week, Tesla sent its “complete autonomous driving” software to a small group of owners who will test it on public roads. But buried on its website, there is a warning that the $ 8,000 system does not make vehicles autonomous and drivers still have to oversee it.
The mixed messages have experts in the field accusing Tesla of deceptive and irresponsible marketing that could make roads more dangerous as the system is rolled out to one million electric vehicle drivers by the end of the year.
“It’s actively misleading people about the capabilities of the system, based on the information I’ve seen about it,” said Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, who studied autonomous driving for 40 years. “This is a very limited functionality that still requires constant monitoring of the driver.”
In a conference call Wednesday, Musk told industry analysts that the company is slowly and cautiously starting to automatically drive “because the world is such a complex and messy place. He plans to add drivers this weekend and hopes to have a larger version by the end of the year. He referred to the fact that a million vehicles “provide feedback” on unpredictable situations.
The company has not identified the drivers or indicated their location. Messages were left on Thursday to solicit comments from Tesla.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates automakers, says it will closely monitor Teslas “and will not hesitate to take action to protect the public from unreasonable safety risks.”
The agency said in a statement that it has been made aware of Tesla’s system, which it considers an extension of driver assistance software, which requires human supervision.
“No vehicle available for purchase today is capable of driving itself,” the statement said.
On its website, Tesla touts its full self-driving capability in large print. In smaller letters, it warns: “The currently activated features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous. Activation and use of these features is dependent on reliability far superior to that of human drivers, as demonstrated by billions of miles of experience, as well as regulatory approval, which may take longer in some cases. jurisdictions. “
Even before using the term “fully autonomous driving”, Tesla named its driver assistance system “autopilot”. Many drivers relied too much on it and checked, resulting in at least three fatalities in the United States. The National Transportation Safety Board has criticized Tesla in these fatal crashes for letting drivers avoid paying attention and not limiting where the autopilot can be used.
Board members, who have no regulatory power, said they were frustrated that the safety recommendations were ignored by Tesla and NHTSA.
Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles, said it was bad enough for Tesla to use the term “autopilot” to describe his system, but elevate it to ” full autonomous driving ”is even worse.
“This leaves the realm of the deceitful and irresponsible to something that could be characterized as fraudulent,” said Walker Smith.
The Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE, has developed five levels to describe the functions of autonomous vehicles. In levels zero to two, humans drive cars and supervise partially automated functions. At levels three through five, vehicles are driven, with level five describing a vehicle traveling in all traffic and weather conditions.
The term “fully autonomous driving” means that there is no other driver other than the vehicle itself, indicating that it would be appropriate not to put anyone in the vehicle, Walker Smith said.
Musk also said on Wednesday that Tesla will focus on setting up a robotaxi system where one person can manage a fleet of 10 self-driving cars in a phone system.
“It wouldn’t be very difficult, but we’re just going to focus on having a self-sustaining network that has kinds of Uber, Lyft, Airbnb elements,” he said.
Tesla is one of 60 companies licensed to drive autonomous vehicles with human emergency drivers in California, Tesla’s No.1 sales state. Companies are required to file reports with regulators to document when the robotic system encounters an issue that forces the driver to take control – a warrant that could drag Tesla vehicle owners into red tape.
Before Tesla is able to put fully autonomous vehicles on California roads, it will need to get another permit from state regulators. Only five companies, including the Google spin-off Waymo and the Cruise subsidiary of General Motors, have obtained these permits.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles did not immediately respond to questions about Tesla’s latest plans for robotic cars.
NHTSA, which has avoided imposing regulations for fear of stifling safety innovation, says each state holds drivers accountable for the safe operation of their vehicles.
Walker Smith argues that the agency places too much responsibility on Tesla drivers when it should ask what automakers are going to do to make sure vehicles are safe. At the same time, he says testing the system with vehicle drivers could be beneficial and accelerate the adoption of autonomous vehicles.
On Thursday afternoon, Musk was clearly trying to sell the full autonomous driving software. He wrote on Twitter that the price of “FSD beta” will increase by $ 2,000 on Monday.
Michael Liedtke, AP Technology writer, contributed from San Ramon, California.