How Tesla can sell ‘full self-driving’ software that doesn’t really drive itself

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said the company will roll out the latest beta version of its “full self-driving” software to 1,000 owners this weekend.

Yet there aren’t actually any self-driving cars for sale today, according to autonomous vehicle experts and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates cars. Tesla’s “full self-driving” is more like an enhanced cruise control, they say. Videos posted on the internet by people who already have the feature unlocked show that it might stop for traffic lights and turn smoothly at intersections, but it also might veer toward pedestrians or confuse the moon for a traffic signal.

Tesla says that a human driver needs to be watching and ready to take over at any moment, and the company is only allowing initial access to the system to the people it considers the safest drivers. Despite those limits, Tesla is free to call its technology “full self-driving.” Tesla owners who download the “full self-driving” beta must check a box confirming that they understand they are responsible for remaining alert with their hands on the wheel, and must be prepared to take action at any time. “Full self-driving” does not make their car autonomous, it says.

A person buying a Tesla vehicle on its website sees the technology described in big, bold letters as “full self-driving,” but the fine print below that says the technology is a driver-assist technology. Driver-assist technologies are intended to help a human drive more safely, with features such as forward collision warning, blind spot warning and lane departure warning systems. “The problem is that Tesla has one foot on both sides,” said Bryan Reimer, a scientist at the MIT AGELab whose research has looked at driver attention with Tesla’s features.