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May 29, 2021, 10:01 a.m. EDT

It’s time for Elon Musk to start telling the truth about autonomous driving

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By Therese Poletti and Jeremy C. Owens

Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has shown that he has an influential platform by roiling the cryptocurrency market with his tweets. It is time for him to use it for a more important purpose: Telling the truth about autonomous driving.

Tesla Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203558040/composite TSLA +1.45% has been charging customers up to $10,000 for “full self-driving” technology for nearly five years . The problem is that such technology does not exist. The company’s cars are equipped with a driver-assistance system, or ADAS, known as Autopilot, which is free of charge. It’s similar to systems offered by other manufacturers, such as General Motors Co.’s /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM -0.77% Super Cruise.

In that time, Musk has provided overly optimistic timelines to full autonomy and exaggerated the current and near-term capabilities of Autopilot. Tesla’s ADAS system lacks technology that most of the industry considers critical to safety, namely a driver-monitoring system. Musk predicted that a Tesla would be able to drive autonomously from Los Angeles to New York in 2018, a trip that still has not happened, and in 2019, he said all Teslas would be fully functioning robotaxis in the near future, which is unlikely, if not impossible.

Musk’s hyperbole is nothing new, and is not unique to him, but when it comes to autonomous driving, the consequences can be dire. Tesla fans have latched on to Musk’s words instead of the warnings in their owner’s manuals, and publicly performed dangerous stunts like sitting in the back seat of their cars as they operate on Autopilot. Recently, a Tesla owner who had posted videos of himself using Autopilot in an unsafe manner died in an automobile accident in California that is being investigated.

Tesla says its $10,000 computer for “self-driving capabilities” improves with software updates. The fine print on Tesla’s website, however, says its cars come with “features [that] require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.” The disclaimer says further that “[t]he activation and use of these features are dependent on achieving reliability far in excess of human drivers as demonstrated by billions of miles of experience, as well as regulatory approval, which may take longer in some jurisdictions.”

State and federal reviews

The pattern of driver misuse, collisions in which Autopilot may have been involved, and Musk’s blasé approach to autonomy has led to renewed scrutiny. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the state of California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is reviewing Tesla to determine whether the company misleads consumers by advertising that its cars have full self-driving capability. While playing up its potential for Level 5, or full autonomy, Tesla has told the California DMV privately that its system is only level 2 , or ADAS. Tesla has already been called out for the practice in Germany, where a court ruled that Tesla has misled consumers about autonomy and banned the company from using certain language.

A DMV spokeswoman confirmed that the matter is under review in California. While she said the DMV does not comment on items under review, she did provide a general statement: “The regulation prohibits a company from advertising vehicles for sale or lease as autonomous unless the vehicle meets the statutory and regulatory definition of an autonomous vehicle and the company holds a deployment permit.”

There are also federal investigations. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has launched 34 investigations related to advanced driver assistance systems, and 28 of those involve Tesla vehicles, according to an NHTSA spokeswoman. Recent Tesla collisions in Texas , California and China have only increased the scrutiny.

Tesla has even drawn attention in the halls of Congress, with three senators recently introducing legislation to require driver-monitoring systems in cars with ADAS . These systems ensure that the driver is in the driver’s seat and paying attention to the road, and are a feature in most cars with strong ADAS systems — but not Teslas.

While fans post videos on media platforms of dangerous maneuvers — such as a man in the Bay Area of California who was arrested for riding in the back seat, then got out of jail, purchased a new Tesla and did it again for a news crew — Tesla is also now a party to at least 16 lawsuits filed across the U.S. in the past two years in which plaintiffs allege malfunction or problems with Tesla Autopilot, according to data gathered by PlainSite .

None of the cases seek class-action status, and all have been filed by individuals, contending dangerous malfunctioning of the software. Tesla has not outlined the suits in its regulatory filings.

Vicki Bryan, CEO of the Bond Angle, says she expects heightened regulatory scrutiny of Tesla and its claims under the new Biden administration. She noted that under the Trump administration, the NHTSA was practically gutted, resulting in toothless enforcement.

“We have a new sheriff in town,” Bryan said. “California is one thing, and California will be working in concert with enhanced federal scrutiny.”

The ‘Autonowashing’ problem

Despite the growing concern, Musk continues to oversell the capabilities and near-term potential of Autopilot and “full-self driving.” Earlier this year he said his company’s outsize valuation — it’s by far the most valuable auto maker in the world — will be validated by the technology . The rest of the industry used to make similar claims about the path to level 5 autonomy — which is when cars will be able to drive anywhere by themselves, with nobody in the driver’s seat — but other car executives have made the switch from sci-fi visions of passenger cars driving themselves to pick up riders to speaking of actual reality.

For example, Nvidia Corp. /zigman2/quotes/200467500/composite NVDA -0.83% CEO Jensen Huang predicted in early 2017 that his company and Audi would be selling Level 4 cars by 2020 , which has not happened. Two years later at the same trade show, Nvidia showed it had changed by instead focusing on ADAS , part of a noticeable trend in those years of tech and auto execs moving from talking about robotaxis and full autonomy in passenger cars to focusing on level 5 autonomy for dedicated robotaxi services and ADAS in cars that would be sold to consumers.

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About Therese Poletti

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Therese Poletti chronicles the machinations of the technology industry for MarketWatch in the Tech Tales column. Before joining MarketWatch, Poletti covered...

Therese Poletti chronicles the machinations of the technology industry for MarketWatch in the Tech Tales column. Before joining MarketWatch, Poletti covered some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News. Previously, she spent over a decade at Reuters, covering a range of beats, from spot news and Wall Street to biotech and technology. Poletti was also the lead reporter on teams at the Mercury News that won two Society of American Business Editors and Writers awards for breaking news and two Society of Professional Journalist awards. She was also a finalist for the Gerald Loeb Awards in the deadline writing category. Poletti is also the author of "Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger," published by Princeton Architectural Press.

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