Tesla and the path to full self-driving value

We first wrote this article in June 2019, over 2 years ago. Tesla were on the verge of a breakthrough, Musk was talking up feature complete by the end of the year, full self-driving was just over the horizon, and here we are two years later with a distinct feeling of deja-vu, only we're now told Tesla Vision is the way forward, with no need for the radar. How this fits with the 4D approach they talked about last year is not entirely clear although likely to be all part of a major redevelopment of the fundamental logic. At the AI day in August 2021 more information was shared, and issues with aligning images to create a seemless landscape were revealed, something that most thought wuld be a day on problem as an object passing from one camera to the next must surely need to be tracked to avoid something suddenly appearing out the blue as a different object seemingly disappears from view as the object transitions from one camera to the next. We speculate this could easily be a cause for phantom braking and not just the radar as previously claimed, especially as people without the radar are still experiencing the issue.

We have also taken a look at the Tesla safety statistics in our Tesla safety report and the need for caution which pretty much puts numbers on the improvements Tesla have made over the last 2 years, and in practice the improvement just isn't happening and the wild claims of " exponential improvements" are wholly unfounded.

We're still sceptical on progress

Elon Musk has tweeted a couple of interesting points: firstly, he's now admitting that he's been optimistic in his timescale estimates. Frankly, anybody who didn't know that especially with regard to FSD haven't been following the topic. In 2017 FSD was due to significantly depart from EAP and yet today we have traffic lights and stop signs and the promise of city street driving, and we're not convinced by the performance of these. Secondly, he's now admitted that driving is a harder problem than he thought and the real world have an infinite number of edge cases. Your expectations of how hard a problem is compared to mine and the actual reality will all be different, but it's of little surprise that Musk thought it would be easier than it's turning out to be given the overly optimistic timescales he now admits to.

We've also seen the need to change AP hardware three (HW2->HW2.5->HW3->HW3 less radar) and there is now talk of FSD2 for the cybertruck. Surely if the sensor suite and computing power were currently sufficient then why the need for yet more changes? We're also doubntful the sensor suite is sufficient. Camera resolution is not high, but given the compute power was wrong a number of times, why should we have confidence in the sensor suite being sufficient? There are 2 significant areas where we feel the sensor suite is failing.

What do Tesla actually mean by FSD?

Tesla talk about FSD without particularly explaining what they mean. Is this level 4 driving where the car can drive for significant parts of the journey with the driver being "mind off", or the full level 5 robotaxi version?

If you pick the FSD option when ordering it just adds Traffic light and stop light control withthe promise of autosteer on city streets in the future. This is level 2 autonomy.

Tesla currently say: Every new Model 3 comes standard with advanced hardware capable of providing Autopilot features today, and full self-driving capabilities in the future—through software updates designed to improve functionality over time.

Previously Tesla have said FSD will let you get in the car and it will drive you to wherever you want to go with minimal intervention.

Musk has claimed that buying FSD now will allow your car to become a robotaxi in the future and go out unsupervised.

Lets also take a look at some of the other challenges before they can achieve any automated driving (as opposed to advanced driver assist where the driver is still responsible):

Therefore, in our opinion, level 5 full self-driving (driverless cars), is simply not plausible with the current cars and for many years, at realistically would require level 4 driving to be in place to learn these edge cases and how to deal with them.

So where's the path to value?

The value is the selective targeting of level 4 driving.

Rather than focus on the feature set for all areas of driving and chasing a goal that is thwarted with issues, we believe that Tesla should take a different approach. Their current development road map appears to be trying to enable the car to autonomously drive in an ever increasing percentage of situations, but rather than achieve 95% ability on 100% of roads, with driver intervention when it fails (level 2 autonomy) we believe they would be better by focusing on 100% of the required ability on 50% of the roads.

So what does that look like? If we consider the hardest road conditions to drive on, they're urban situations. Parked cars, pedestrians, turning across traffic, stop signs and lights, merging onto roundabouts, single lane roads where you need to yield for oncoming traffic. The list goes on. These are not trivial issues and the penalty for getting it wrong can be very high.

full self-driving

But there is a class of road where many of these are not present, and they're also roads where drivers spend several hours in boredom. Freeways, Motorways, Autobahns, The main trunk roads across countries. Autopilot is already incredibly close to addressing these roads in their entirety, Tesla could divert ALL resources into completing the job and getting approval for level 3 or even level 4 autonomy on such road types. To do so they need to resolve the following challenges, which they need to solve regardless of approach, we are just changing the priority:

If they crack this scenario such that a driver can drive the first mile or 2 to the interstate and then settle back and work on their laptop for 2 hours while the car drives, and then takes back control, it would be the first truly autonomous, publicly accessible feature offering "mind off" driving. Tesla can then extend their footprint from this base to other road types.

This is less about feature complete of all features, but execution poor, its about feature perfected for the subset of features required for a specific road type. Get one road type cracked and the rest will eventually follow. There is a related benefit to this approach too. The human behaviour aspects of driver aids such as the current implementation of autopilot means it is increasingly abused by drivers. Liberties can be taken, and the driver often gets away with them, and the better the system becomes the less prepared many drivers will be to intervene when the need arises. To move to a lower standard of AP on inappropriate roads, and a higher standard on selected roads, together with the development of better understanding and assessment of the driver’s ability to resume control will lead to a reduction in the number of accidents from driver abuse.

The approach we believe that will give both motorists and shareholders value is therefore narrow the scope and execute completely, this will be quicker to market and safer for all. As its purely a subset of the overall vision it can't be slower, but the first to market with the approvals to use it in a public setting will set the precedent, take the first mover advantage and in turn boost product sales, the value of FSD, the reputation and, if Musk’s claims of wanting to the safest, the greatest of all value, fewer road fatalities and serious injuries.

What about level 3

Level 3 is where the car takes responsibility for the driving but should it need to, pass the responsibility back to the driver in a controlled fashion. Some countries are moving to partially legislate for this but with some strict conditions including the timescales for handing back control and ensuring the driver is available. This is known as "eyes off" driving, you sit in the driver’s seat, you can watch TV, maybe work on emails, but should the cars autonomous driving system detect a situation which it cannot cope with, it has a period of time, 6 seconds has been mentioned, to alert the driver and the driver to stop what they are doing, appraise the situation and be back in control of the car.

This sounds like the idea halfway house; however, we believe it poses the following significant obstacles:

The disadvantage of level 3 is lack of predictability. Many drivers currently (and incorrectly) already use their cars in a sort of level 3 mode, using their mobile phones etc., and while a formal level 3 would legalise this, it would also potentially increase the level of abuse.

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