• Automated Driving Systems
  • Advanced Driver Assistance Systems
  • Policy and Regulation

There Are No Truly Autonomous Driving Systems Available to Purchase Today

Sam Abuelsamid
Mar 30, 2021

Guidehouse Insights

In October 2020, Tesla began distributing a beta version of its Full Self-Driving (FSD) software to a limited set of customers, and the software was purported to be feature complete. This came 18 months after Tesla CEO Elon Musk proclaimed, "We expect to have the first operating robotaxis next year [2020] with no one in them," during Tesla’s Autonomy Day for investors. The beta release raised many questions about how California’s regulations for testing automated vehicles would be applied. Despite Tesla’s branding of the system, the company acknowledges that it is a Level 2 advanced driver assistance system (ADAS).

Automated driving systems (ADS) that don’t require any human supervision or takeover fall within the SAE Level 4 (L4) category if they have a limited operating domain defined by location, weather, or any other criteria. Level 5 (L5) ADS are capable of operating anywhere. To legally test L4 or L5 ADS on public roads in California, developers must get a special permit from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and submit an annual report of miles driven in automated mode, any interventions by safety drivers, and any accidents that occur. 

For a Tesla or any other vehicle to operate as a robotaxi, it would have to be capable of at least L4, so testing an L4 system in the hands of consumers would require Tesla to provide all of this data to the DMV and get permits for those customers to test the ADS. I reached out to the California DMV and received the following response from their media relations department:

The DMV continues to gather information from Tesla on its most recent beta release and how the new features work. At this time, the department has not determined whether vehicles equipped with the software update meet California’s definition of an automated vehicle.

When California published its annual automated vehicle disengagement report in early February 2021, Tesla reported 0 miles of automated driving, which implies that unlike several dozen other companies testing in the state, they don’t consider the FSD beta to be an L4 system. This has now been confirmed thanks to PlainSite.org, which has published correspondence between the DMV and Tesla regarding FSD including the City Streets function. Claims indicated that this version was able to navigate city streets, respond to traffic signs and signals, and get the occupants from one location to another with minimal intervention from the driver. 

Roadblocks to FSD Remain

In a November 20, 2020 letter from Tesla Associate General Counsel Eric Williams to Miguel Acosta, Chief of the Autonomous Vehicle branch of the California DMV, Williams confirmed “City Streets [referring to Tesla’s FSD—City Streets feature] continues to firmly root the vehicle in SAE Level 2 capability and does not make it autonomous under the DMV’s definition. City Streets’ capabilities with respect to the object and event detection and response sub-task are limited, as there are circumstances and events to which the system is not capable of recognizing or responding.”

It’s good that regulators in California are monitoring what companies claiming to develop ADS are doing. However, more needs to be done by automakers and policymakers to inform the public about all ADAS/ADS and their true limitations. Musk continues to use his Twitter presence to heavily promote FSD and expand availability of the beta. Branding is important and creates an impression of capability. However, agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission have a public responsibility to examine all marketing of ADAS to ensure it is accurately represented to the public. A more proactive approach to ADAS/ADS evaluation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration can help to ensure that these systems are being deployed responsibly and safely.