Tesla touts self-driving to consumers. To the DMV, it tells a different tale

Man lets Tesla drive itself, his hands are not on the steering wheel
Although Tesla vehicles come with options for partially automated driving on city streets, the manual and legal fine print tell drivers to keep their hands on the wheel. Tesla lawyers recently told the DMV that “there are circumstances and events to which the system is not capable of recognizing and responding.”
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For years, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk has been telling the public that fully autonomous Teslas are just around the corner, no more than a year or two off.

The company has been telling regulators a very different story.

In official correspondence with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, Tesla lawyers recently admitted the $10,000 option that Tesla sells as Full Self-Driving Capability is not, in fact, capable of full self-driving. “Currently neither Autopilot nor FSD Capability is an autonomous system,” Tesla attorney Eric Williams said in a Dec. 28 letter to the DMV, although that could change, he added.

Not soon, though. Musk has been tweeting plans for a major Full Self-Driving software release. But Williams told the DMV that “we do not expect significant enhancements” that would allow full self-driving, and that the “final release” of a current feature package that lets Teslas stop at traffic lights and turn left and right without human input “will continue to be an SAE Level 2, advanced driver-assist feature.” In plain English, that means the vehicle cannot drive itself, at any time, without constant attention from a human driver.


The emails were revealed after a public records request from the transparency advocacy organization Plainsite. They show the DMV questioning Tesla about its claims around Full Self-Driving technology and asking the company why it has not applied for a driverless vehicle test permit, as six other automakers and tech companies have done.

Bryant Walker Smith, an autonomous vehicle law expert at the University of South Carolina, described the Tesla emails as “cringe-worthy.” He said “it’s so obviously clear that there’s a contradiction between what Tesla is saying in its marketing role” versus what its engineers and lawyers are telling the DMV. “One side is inflating those expectations, the other side is massaging them,” he said.

Although “mushy words” are used throughout the industry to describe robot car technology — from driverless to autonomous to self-driving to driver assist — there is no ambiguity about the word “full” in Full Self-Driving, Smith said. It means a car that drives itself. “There’s a difference between a doctor telling you you’re healthy and telling you you’re completely healthy,” he said.

Musk has reasons to promote Full Self-Driving. The $10,000 option is a balm to Tesla’s revenues and profits, although just how much is unclear: The company doesn’t break out FSD sales. Musk has been selling buyers on the idea that with autonomous technology, Tesla vehicles will appreciate in value.

In April 2019, when cash was short at Tesla, Musk said 1 million fully autonomous robotaxis would be on the road by the end of 2020, making money for their owners. A few weeks later, Tesla sold $3 billion worth of Tesla stock, solving its cash crunch. By the end of 2020 not a single robotaxi had been built. The DMV emails suggest they won’t be anytime soon.

Tesla has no media relations department and could not be reached for comment.

The email exchanges raise an important public safety question: Is the company conducting driverless car experiments that put the public and Tesla’s own customers at unnecessary risk?


So-called Full Self-Driving Capability is an evolution of the company’s Autopilot technology, whose core functions are adaptive cruise control and automatic steering. The FSD option comes with automatic lane change on freeways, automated parking and automated stopping at traffic lights and signs.

The most recent iteration is Autosteer on city streets; when activated, the car can make left- and right-hand turns automatically after stopping at a traffic light or stop sign. That feature is limited to an “early access program” that Tesla last December said totaled about 150 Tesla employees and about 50 nonemployees. The responsibilities and liabilities of those participants are similar to those of the test driver in the infamous 2018 crash in which an experimental Volvo equipped with an Uber self-drive system failed to identify a pedestrian crossing the street and killed her. The driver, who apparently was distracted by her phone, was charged last year with negligent homicide.

The Autosteer city-street feature is scheduled for full-scale rollout later this year.

The DMV emails make clear that Full Self-Driving is, at best, a work in progress. In one letter to the DMV, Tesla attorney Williams noted that “there are circumstances and events to which the system is not capable of recognizing or responding. These include static objects and road debris, emergency vehicles, construction zones, large uncontrolled intersections with multiple incoming ways, occlusions, adverse weather, complicated or adversarial vehicles in the driving path, unmapped roads.” As a result, Williams wrote, “the driver maintains responsibility.”

Musk has said that Teslas with the automated features engaged crash less than those that don’t use them. But the company has yet to release raw data to support this claim, and it has spurned academic researchers who have offered to evaluate the data it holds.

Tesla crashes regularly make headlines, although only insurance companies are able to determine how their crash rate compares with other vehicles’, information they do not publish. Police, courts and safety officials must depend on Tesla to verify after a crash whether Autopilot or Full Self-Driving was engaged because the information is proprietary to Tesla.

The state statute that covers deployment of autonomous vehicles states that a vehicle must be capable of driving itself “without the constant control or active monitoring of a natural person” to be considered autonomous under the DMV permit process.


Smith said the statute’s language could justify the DMV requiring that Tesla apply for a permit but could also justify the DMV giving Tesla a pass. For now, Tesla can continue to have it both ways — touting its level of autonomy to consumers while downplaying it to regulators.