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Tesla FSD approval about tech, not regulators

Hands on: Road safety regulators in the United States have long been at loggerheads with Tesla over its partially automated driving systems.

WITHOUT actually saying its cars are not yet fully autonomous-ready, Tesla this week “flagged” that the vehicles are not ready to be approved as fully autonomous by the end of 2022.

Regardless of whether Tesla’s cars and technology are actually ready to go or ready to be approved, according to AutoNews Europe (ANE), the pioneering EV-maker’s “advanced driver assistant software will not gain regulatory approval in 2022”.

ANE reports that Tesla CEO Elon Musk “made remarks last week which indicate the company is not yet able to satisfy authorities that its cars can be driven without someone behind the wheel”.

It means the cars still need to be driven with human oversight and a completely autonomous vehicle would still require regulatory approval.

Tesla’s standard and contentiously named ’Autopilot’ feature enables cars to steer, accelerate and brake within lanes without a driver but an optional $15,000 add-on called ‘Full Self-Driving’ (FSD) is available, which enables the vehicles to change lanes and park autonomously.

Many commentators say this in itself suggests the Autopilot feature is not 100 per cent reliable as it obviously requires the optional add-on that then prompts the question: “Is the technology itself fully resolved?”

On top of that, and tellingly, Mr Musk told ANE last week that all FSD users in North America will get an upgraded version at the end of the year, adding that while its cars are ‘not ready’ to have no-one behind the wheel, drivers would rarely have to touch the controls.

“The car will be able to take you from your home to your work, your friend’s house, the grocery store without you touching the wheel,” Mr Musk said.

“It’s a separate matter as to will it have regulatory approval. It will not have regulatory approval at that time (end 2022),” he added.

Mr Musk said he hopes the update to FSD in 2023 will show regulators that the car is much safer than the average human.

ANE quoted comments from Roth Capital analyst Craig Irwin who said: “Musk is opening the possibility Tesla will have a more difficult path to approval for FSD given heightened NHTSA and other scrutiny.”

Road safety regulators in the United States have long been at loggerheads with Tesla over its partially automated driving systems.

Since 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened 38 special investigations into crashes involving Tesla vehicles that have resulted in 19 deaths, looking at whether the software was a factor.

“Reading between the lines, that means tensions between NHTSA and Tesla will ramp at the end of the year and Tesla will move forward,” said Gene Munster, a managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures, which owns Tesla shares.

Naming of Tesla’s Autopilot and FSD systems has also caused problems, with the California state transportation regulator accusing Tesla of false advertising since the features do not provide full autonomous vehicle control.

Tesla’s website says both technologies “require active driver supervision” with a “fully attentive” driver whose hands are on the wheel, “and do not make the vehicle autonomous”.

But some analysts say that Tesla’s primary problem is not regulators but the software itself, given the complexity of autonomous driving.

“The impediment is the technology. It is not about approval of that technology,” said law professor at the University of South Carolina, Bryant Walker Smith in the ANE report.

Tesla has repeatedly missed self-imposed targets for its vehicles to achieve full self-driving capability – a function that Mr Musk has said will eventually become “the most important source of profitability for Tesla”.

Approval or not, and regardless of what Elon Musk says, fully autonomous driving from any manufacturer where the driver can potentially sit in the back seat and be driven somewhere by the car, has yet to resolve the seemingly unresolvable issues of liability in the event of a collision and critical decision making as in the case of an imminent collision, for example, to swerve around a truck or a pedestrian or run off the road to avoid such scenarios.

While government bodies in the US will have their say in any potential approval, so too will insurance companies that would be watching Tesla’s autonomous travails with a close eye as they will ultimately wear any liabilities if an autonomous car is implicated in a collision.

So like it or not, at this point, Tesla and others have plenty to do to get fully autonomous drive systems across the line.

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