A Dog Riding a Skateboard: Some Preliminary Thoughts on Tesla’s ‘Full Self-Driving’ Feature

If they called it “driver assist”, it would be a great feature.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted May 19, 2024 in Blog (Last Updated May 19, 2024)

So Tesla has made their “Full Self Driving” beta feature available to every Tesla owner for a free month to test it out.

After a few days of trying it in various conditions - driving to Niagara and back, driving to Toronto and back, several trips in Hamilton, driving in rush-hour traffic, driving in the rain - I have some preliminary thoughts.

Tesla FSD is like a dog riding a skateboard. You think: Wow! Someone taught a dog to ride a skateboard! And the dog learned to ride a skateboard! That’s genuinely amazing.

Of course, the dog isn’t particularly good at riding a skateboard. I mean, it’s a dog. What did you expect? But it’s still a dog riding a skateboard, and that’s impressive.

So I’m simultaneously of two minds.

On the one hand, it’s genuinely amazing to experience a car driving itself - speeding up and slowing down, changing lanes, stopping for red lights and stop signs, waiting for pedestrians to cross before proceeding, and so on.

On the other hand, it drives like a cautious, inexperienced teenager. Over the course of a few trips:

In each of these situations, I had to assume manual control. It was fine because I was already in a state of high alert and prepared to do so. And to be fair, the service hits you over the head with its repeated insistence that you do need to stay alert, keep your hands on the wheel and be prepared to take over.

It even periodically prompts you to apply slight turning pressure to the steering wheel if you’re holding it too loosely.

Fair enough. As a driver-assist service, it’s pretty cool and even useful, especially on long drives with relatively simple conditions.

But then call it “Driver Assist”, not “Full Self-Driving”. The “Beta” qualifier is being asked to do an unreasonable amount of work to align the name with the thing named.

After all, it’s not Tony Hawke doing a kickflip mctwist. It’s a dog riding a skateboard.

As impressive as it is, It’s nowhere near good enough to replace a human driver. And look, the software will get progressively better over time. If it’s 90 percent of the way now, it will get to 95 and then 99 and then 99.9 and so on.

But even breathtakingly transformative driving software won’t be able to overcome what turns out to be a devastatingly prosaic technical limitation: today’s Teslas have no way to clean their own cameras.

Frankly, given how much attention the software challenges get, I’m surprised more people aren’t pointing this out. The best self-driving software in the world can’t drive if it can’t see.

You could imagine a hyper-engineered solution in which Teslas share their sensor data with each other to create a mesh network that enhances every car’s situational awareness. But that doesn’t exist today, it requires a fast reliable high-bandwidth network with ultra-low latency, and it requires other Teslas to be on the road at all times to serve as a consistent backup when a car’s sensors fail.

I expect it would be a lot easier to equip every car with camera wipers. Indeed, some other luxury car makers already do this. So there could be a Tesla model in the future that is truly self-driving. But barring retrofits, no current production Tesla has this.

Which means that even if and when the software is perfected, today’s Teslas will never be truly self-driving. That’s not a bad thing in itself. Indeed, it remains an objectively excellent car despite not having this transformative ability.

But there’s a fair argument to be made that calling their driver assist service “Full Self-Driving” amounts to false advertising.