This is a preview from our weekly newsletter. Each week I go ‘Beyond the News’ and handcraft a special edition that includes my thoughts on the biggest stories, why it matters, and how it could impact the future.
Earlier this week, NTSB Chief Jennifer Homendy made some disparaging comments regarding Tesla’s use of “Full Self-Driving” to explain its semi-autonomous driving suite. The remarks from Homendy show that Tesla may not have a fair chance when it ultimately comes to proving the effectiveness of its FSD program, especially considering agency officials, who should remain impartial, are already making misdirected comments regarding the name of the suite.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Homendy commented on the company’s use of the phrase “Full Self-Driving.” While Tesla’s FSD suite is admittedly not capable of Level 5 autonomy, the idea for the program is to eventually roll out a fully autonomous driving program for those who choose to invest in the company’s software. However, instead of focusing on the program’s effectiveness and commending Tesla, arguably the leader in self-driving developments, Homendy concentrates on the terminology.
Homendy said Tesla’s use of the term “Full Self-Driving” was “misleading and irresponsible,” despite the company confirming with each driver who buys the capability that the program is not yet fully autonomous. Drivers are explicitly told to remain vigilant and keep their hands on the wheel at all times. It is a requirement to use Autopilot or FSD, and failure to do so can result in being locked in “Autopilot jail” for the duration of your trip. Nobody wants that.
However, despite the way some media outlets and others describe Tesla’s FSD program, the company’s semi-autonomous driving functionalities are extraordinarily safe and among the most complex on the market. Tesla is one of the few companies attempting to solve the riddle that is self-driving, and the only to my knowledge that has chosen not to use LiDAR in its efforts. Additionally, Tesla ditched radar just a few months ago in the Model Y and Model 3, meaning cameras are the only infrastructure the company plans to use to keep its cars moving. Several drivers have reported improvements due to the lack of radar.
These comments regarding FSD and Autopilot are simple: The terminology is not the focus; the facts are. The truth is, Tesla Autopilot recorded one of its safest quarters, according to the most recently released statistics that outlined an accident occurring on Autopilot just once every 4.19 million miles. The national average is 484,000 miles, the NHTSA says.
It isn’t to say that things don’t happen. Accidents on Autopilot and FSD do occur, and the NHTSA is currently probing twelve incidents that have shown Autopilot to be active during an accident. While the conditions and situations vary in each accident, several have already been proven to be the result of driver negligence, including a few that had drivers operating a vehicle without a license or under the influence of alcohol. Now, remind me: When a BMW driver is drunk and crashes into someone, do we blame BMW? I’ll let that rhetorical question sink in.
Of course, Homendy has a Constitutional right to say whatever is on her mind. It is perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of self-driving systems. I’ll admit, the first time I experienced one, I was not a fan, but it wasn’t because I didn’t trust it. It was because I was familiar with controlling a vehicle and not having it manage things for me. However, just like anything else, I adjusted and got used to the idea, eventually becoming accustomed to the new feelings and sensations of having my car assist me in navigating to my destination.
To me, it is simply unfortunate for an NTSB official to claim that Tesla “has clearly misled numerous people to misuse and abuse technology.” One, because it isn’t possible, two, because it would be a massive liability for the company, and three, because Tesla has never maintained that its cars can drive themselves. Tesla has never claimed that its cars can drive themselves, nor has Tesla ever advised a driver to attempt a fully autonomous trek to a destination.
The numerous safety features and additions to the FSD suite have only solidified Tesla’s position as one of the safest car companies out there. With in-cabin cameras to test driver attentiveness and numerous other safety thresholds that drivers must respond to with the correct behaviors, Tesla’s FSD suite and its Autopilot program are among the safest around. It isn’t favorable for NTSB head Homendy to comment in this way, especially as it seems to be detrimental to not only Tesla’s attempts to achieve Level 5 autonomy but the entire self-driving effort as a whole.