Tesla is now one week into the beta testing of its Full Self Driving technology, and it has generated such interest, and controversy, that is worth assessing where it has got to. Has it been a disaster, as some suggested it would, or not?
The challenge for the FSD technology is as much about how it navigates difficult traffic problems such as intersections and roundabouts, as it is navigating the skeptics on social and mainstream media.
But this is a critical phase of Tesla’s evolution. If it gets it right, it will project what is already the world’s most valuable car maker even further into the future, and create a lead over its rivals that may be impossible for them to catch.
It will certainly unlock billions of dollars of potential software and subscription revenues, not to mention the long term goal of creating a huge fleet of autonomous or “robo-taxis” as Elon Musk woud like to do.
Musk insists that the EV maker can, and will, achieve true autonomous driving that can operate away from connectivity and pre-built maps, and the reason it will be able to do this is the millions of miles of data that is gathering through Autopilot, and the already active portions of FSD such as Navigate on Autopilot and Smart Summon.
Tesla FSD beta is being tested in real world environments by real world drivers, and testers have taken to the program enthusastically, tweeting numerous videos under the hashtag #FSDbeta to share their results. A little more than one week later into the program, and it would seem it hasn’t been a disaster at all.
The one news story that we can find that gives a hint of an incident is this one of beta tester “Brandon M”, whose potential near miss with a parked car, as The Driven reported last Friday was quickly and successfully avoided.
But that’s not the message being reported elsewhere. The Drive, not to be confused with this publication, chose to use a clickbait headline, “Tesla’s ‘Full Self Driving’ Beta Tech Nearly Wrecked This Model 3 Into a Parked Car“. But the reality is that the Model 3 was stopped well before it became anything like a near miss.
Instead, what we have heard from the FSD beta testers is that the software is improving, even outside the one software upgrade that has been released since its first roll out (it is now up to Version 2020.40.8.11).
Kim Paquette, who took off on a solo road trip in her Model 3 in June, only to be lassoed into the beta testing program, has posted several videos via her Twitter account that show she considers the car’s handling under FSD is improving.
On Friday morning (Australian time), she noted that a route she had taken several times that involves a turn into a narrow street over railroad tracks on a rainy day was “the smoothest yet”.
— Kim Paquette 💫 (@kimpaquette) October 29, 2020
She has also recorded her Model 3 driving through a roundabout (rotary), saying it handled it “with ease” and wasn’t bothered by a series of deep puddles.
#FSDBeta handling the rotary with ease – and in the rain!
— Kim Paquette 💫 (@kimpaquette) October 29, 2020
Another post recorded by Paquette, shows a new behaviour at a stop sign, where the vehicle inches forwards after stopping before deciding to head into the intersection.
“That was really good! That did what it was supposed to do,” Paquette says in the video.
— Kim Paquette 💫 (@kimpaquette) October 28, 2020
In dealing with pedestrians and other road users – understandably the most touchy topic since an Uber self-driving test vehicle hit and killed a woman in 2018 – FSD beta appears to be exercising “an abundance of caution”.
On Saturday, Paquette posted a video showing her Model 3 crossing a yellow line to give both a pedestrian and a cyclist a wide berth.
“On [the current version of] Autopilot it doesn’t want to cross that yellow line if there’s a pedestrian or cyclist, which is common on this road,” she says.
— Kim Paquette 💫 (@kimpaquette) October 23, 2020
In this video posted on Friday by Tesla owner and Tesmanian co-founder Vincent, the vehicle recognises the pedestrian crossing and stops back behind it, allowing a person to cross the street.
Here is a new Tesla FSD Beta clip from my road test few days ago in the Pacific Coast Highway.
— Vincent 🚀🟠 (@vincent13031925) October 29, 2020
In this example of a Model 3 with FSD beta uploaded by James Locke, his Tesla vehicle also gives a person a wide berth in a parking lot.
According to Locke, it takes the parking lot’s tight lanes and turns easily at a sensible 10 or so miles an hour (16km/hr), despite the fact it has the speed limit set at 45 miles an hour (72km/hr).
It recognises odd parking lanes and goes wide for pedestrians.
The main criticism that we can find is that FSD tends to take corners wide, which as in the case of Brandon’s video, opens up the potential to collide with unseen traffic. But that is the purpose of the beta testing, to identify such issues and make improvements.
Tesla released new figures this week claiming even its own Autopilot is resulting in increasingly less accidents over time, although it has also been demoted below GM’s Super Cruise by Consumer Reports for not actively monitoring driver engagement other than via the steering wheel torque.
But the validity of Consumer Reports scorecard may only prove salient if GM ever sells more Super Cruise-enabled vehicles than Tesla sells FSD. As noted by Giles Parkinson on Tuesday, the legacy car makers may already be too late to catch up to Tesla.
And the catch cry of naysayers on social media, that Tesla has not given other road users the opportunity for “informed consent” ignores the fact that fossil-fuelled transport has been far more damaging, both for its carbon and tailpipe emissions.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.