Tesla Admits Elon Musk Overstates Capabilities of Full Self-Driving Software

According to information that the legal transparency site PlainSite obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a Tesla engineer informed Californian regulators that Tesla is unlikely to have a fully self-driving vehicle ready for release this year. This contradicts claims by Elon Musk that the company’s Full Self-Driving software will be ready to come out of beta by the end of the year.

This comes hard on the heels of last month’s fatal crash in Texas in which Autopilot was allegedly activated. Tesla denies it, and the most recent information available indicates that there was a person in the driver’s seat at the time of the accident. Consumer Reports had issued a report of recent tests indicating that the software could be fooled into thinking that someone was in the driver’s seat and paying attention when there actually wasn’t.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a scale of levels of autonomy at which motor vehicles can function. Level 5 would be full autonomy – the car can drive and avoid most hazards even if the operator is sound asleep in the back seat. Level 2 is the level at which a driver assistance program can perform some limited functions in a relatively safe environment, but still requires the supervision of a human driver.

“Tesla is at Level 2 currently. The ratio of driver interaction would need to be in the magnitude of 1 or 2 million miles per driver interaction to move into higher levels of automation,” said an internal memo obtained from California DMV, which is apparently based on updates from Tesla’s software development team.

The DMV added that the company and Elon Musk should avoid hyperbole and exaggerations while discussing its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving software. This hyperbole may lead to dangerous stunts such as recent reports of a man sitting in the back seat of a driverless, moving Tesla vehicle, which may be not only hazardous, but also illegal. He may have since been identified, as SFGATE said that the man had a history of unsafe driving practices and may know the YouTuber named Ingineerix, who caught some brief video footage of him pulling this stunt.

Tesla regards Elon Musk’s tweets as official communications, which has caused considerable exasperation among investors and even an investor lawsuit alleging that Tesla has failed to retain an attorney who can control Musk’s occasionally ill-considered tweeting. There may be concern that Tesla’s stock could go into a tumble if Tesla fails to meet Elon Musk’s timelines.

However, Elon Musk has expressed confidence that Full Self-Driving will be capable of operating vehicles even better than humans can by the end of the year. “Still be careful, but we’re getting mature,” he said in a March 5 tweet. He has also mentioned plans to expand the beta program’s access to the public. On the flip side, he has admitted that the company will revoke access to the software’s beta if the driver fails to pay attention while using it.

Elon Musk has been known to issue overly ambitious timelines for his companies’ engineering projects, however, and Tesla’s own engineers admit that it will likely take longer for the Full Self-Driving software to reach Level 5.