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Elon Musk Walks Back Full Self-Driving Claims

His Q3 earnings call with investors was a stark contrast to earlier claims about a robotaxi fleet

Elon Musk (left) has been claiming that he will launch a fleet of “robotaxis” next year—cars which can operate themselves as a taxi service, earning money for their owners while the owners sleep. In fact, Musk has made a lot of claims about the future capabilities of Tesla vehicles.

Recently, in the Q3 2019 earnings call, Musk has begun the process of walking back some of those claims. He insists that he is “clarifying,” not modifying, his claims.

Okay. Let’s take a short trip down memory lane to see what Musk and Tesla have actually said about autonomy for Tesla vehicles and then see how his new statements in the earnings call compare.

In January 2016, Musk claimed that “Within two years you’ll be able to summon your car from across the country.” He expanded on this, saying, “So, let’s say, if you’re in New York and your car is in Los Angeles, it will find its way to you.” He even promised that it would find charging stations along the way and charge itself as needed. Musk further said, “It will work anywhere in the country as opposed to limited to a particular city [and] it will be able to drive on virtually all roads at a safety level significantly better than humans.”

Later that year, Musk claimed that every car produced from that time forward have the required hardware for Level 5 autonomy. According to the SAE, Level 5 means that there is no driver; the car is fully capable of performing all tasks and the occupant doesn’t have to pay attention.

Shortly after this, we noted a self-driving demo video from 2016 which can still be found on Tesla’s website where Tesla makes the claim that “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” If the “person is not doing anything” and “is only there for legal reasons.” then he is not monitoring the car, the road, or anything else. In other words, according to Tesla’s statement, he is there only to comply with regulations, not because of any limitation of the car.

According to Musk’s 2016 claims, if it weren’t for those pesky regulators, his cars should have been able to safely drive across the country to meet us with no problems by 2018. Although that hadn’t happened yet in October 2019, he had also promised meanwhile that “next year” (2020), he would have that fleet of a million robotaxis. Again, the only thing preventing that triumph, in his view, were the regulators. There was no problem with the technology.

However, Musk seems to have forgotten all of this during the Q3 2019 earnings call. Here, he has started singing quite a different tune. The question from the investors was:

There is skepticism regarding your comment that the full self-driving will be feature-complete by year-end, like resulting from confusion about feature-complete, what feature-complete means. Could you please talk to this and perhaps give us a list of features that establish the FSD [full self-driving] baseline?

Elon responds, saying:

“Yeah, feature-complete, I mean, it’s—the car is able to drive from one’s house to work, most likely without interventions. So it will still be supervised, but it will be able to drive—it will fill in the gap from low-speed autonomy—low speed autonomy with Summon. You’ve got high-speed autonomy on the highway, and intermediate speed autonomy, which really just means traffic lights and stop signs.

“So feature-complete means it’s most likely able to do that without intervention, without human intervention, but it would still be supervised. And I’’ve gone through this timeline before several times, but it is often misconstrued that there’s three major levels to autonomy. There’s the car being able to be autonomous, but requiring supervision and intervention at times. That’s feature complete. Then there’s—and it doesn’t mean like every scenario, everywhere on earth, including ever corner case, it just means most of the time.

“And then, there’s another level which is that we think it’s —that from a Tesla standpoint, we think the car is safe enough to be driven without supervision. Then the third level would be that regulators are also convinced that the car can be driven autonomously without supervision. Those are three different levels.”

So, to follow the timeline, we start with Musk saying in 2016 that Teslas will be able to drive themselves across the country by 2018, with the only problem being regulators.

Then he is saying later in 2016 that Teslas can already drive themselves and the driver doesn’t have to do anything. Again, the video stated that the only reason for the driver at all is because of those annoying regulators.

Now, he is promising that his “Full Self-Driving” (yes, “full” is part of his own name for the product) will be feature-complete by the end of this year but that this level of completeness doesn’t have the same level of autonomy that Tesla was claiming for itself three years ago!

Of course, Musk blames other people for “misconstruing” his claims. This certainly isn’t the first time he has palmed off responsibility for his own mistakes onto others. It seems to be a common theme with him. He often makes highly exaggerated claims, passing off his personal fantasies as fact. Later, he blames those who believed him for “misunderstanding” what he meant.

In short, you won’t be getting your personal robotaxi from Tesla anytime soon. When Musk talks about “full” self-driving, according to his latest statement, he actually means that it still fully requires a driver, and not just because of regulations. The software simply can’t handle full self-driving by itself.

The moral of the story? Stop listening to self-important tech leaders about the future. Just like their software, they don’t actually know where they are going.

Also by Jonathan Bartlett on Elon Musk and self-driving cars:

Even Elon Musk can’t get a robotaxi these days His recent earnings call (July 24, 2019) makes clear that few think his promised million-taxi fleet is real-world

Elon Musk: You are liable for my malfunctioning code! He hopes to put the blame for self-driving mishaps in parking lots on customers


Are Tesla’s robot taxis a phantom fleet? What’s behind Elon Musk’s sudden wild taxi adventure?

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Elon Musk Walks Back Full Self-Driving Claims