Tesla’s self-driving tech may still have some ground to cover

7 May 2021

Image: © Tierney/Stock.adobe.com

A memo from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has revealed that Tesla cars may not reach Level 5 autonomy by the end of the year.

Elon Musk has been making claims for some time that Tesla cars are close to having Level 5 autonomy. A new memo from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in the US, however, suggests that its fully self-driving vehicles aren’t likely to be hitting roads just yet.

Speaking at an event last year, Musk said there were “no fundamental challenges remaining” in rolling out this highest stage of self-driving technology – something Tesla’s competitors claimed was years away.

Musk made similar comments during a Tesla earnings conference call at the start of 2021. According to Reuters, he said he was “highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year”.

In terms of vehicle autonomy, Level 5 refers to full driving automation that requires no human attention. The DMV’s recent memo says that despite Musk’s claims, Tesla cars are at Level 2, which is partial driving automation that still requires active human monitoring.

Level 2 autonomous vehicles can control steering and accelerating and decelerating, but a human must remain in the driver’s seat to take control when needed. Last month, a Tesla Model S car crashed and killed two people when there was reportedly nobody in the driver’s seat.

The DMV’s memo, which was released by legal transparency group PlainSite, refers to a tweet from Musk about Tesla’s current capacity for autonomous driving. “Elon’s tweet does not match engineering reality,” it says. “Tesla is at Level 2 currently.”

This information came from CJ Moore, an Autopilot engineer at Tesla who represented the company in a conference call with the California DMV in March of this year.

“Tesla indicated that Elon is extrapolating on the rates of improvement when speaking about Level 5 capabilities,” the memo continues. “Tesla couldn’t say if the rate of improvement would make it to Level 5 by end of calendar year.

“Tesla indicated that they are still firmly in Level 2. As Tesla is aware, the public’s misunderstanding about the limits of the technology and its misuse can have tragic consequences.”

When asked about addressing potential misunderstandings, Moore and his colleagues told the DMV that each Tesla sales associate receives training on Autopilot, which includes them test-driving the vehicles. They also receive ongoing video content, according to the memo, on which they are quizzed.

At the end of the call, the DMV told the Tesla representatives it would “appreciate future updates as they become available”.

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021