Tesla's 'Full Self-Driving Capability' Falls Short of Its Name
The pricey option doesn’t make the car self-driving, and now Tesla’s promises are under scrutiny by state regulators in California
The features might be cutting edge, even cool, but we think buyers should be wary of shelling out $10,000 for what electric car company Tesla calls its Full Self-Driving Capability option. Tesla claims every new vehicle it builds includes all the hardware necessary to be fully autonomous, and the company says that through future over-the-air software updates, its cars should eventually be capable of driving themselves—for a price.
But for now, Full Self-Driving Capability, which includes features that can assist the driver with parking, changing lanes on the highway, and even coming to a complete halt at traffic lights and stop signs, remains a misnomer. And as federal investigations of crashes involving Tesla vehicles add up, regulators are increasingly scrutinizing Tesla’s claims.
Earlier this week, the California Department of Motor Vehicles put Tesla “under review” for public statements that may violate state regulations that prohibit automakers from advertising vehicles for sale or lease as autonomous unless the vehicle meets the statutory and regulatory definition of an autonomous vehicle and the company holds a deployment permit, the agency’s press office confirmed to CR.
“Despite the name, the Full Self-Driving Capability suite requires significant driver attention to ensure that these developing-technology features don’t introduce new safety risks to the driver, or other vehicles out on the road,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “Not only that, in our evaluations we determined that several of the features don’t provide much in the way of real benefits to customers, despite the extremely high purchase price.”
Even Tesla has said that adding Full Self-Driving Capability will not turn a Tesla into a self-driving car. Records from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) released to the legal advocacy group Plainsite reveal that an attorney for the automaker told DMV officials in March 2021, that Tesla vehicles equipped with Full Self-Driving Capability will still require that a driver steer, brake, or accelerate as needed. That makes it less than “Full.”
Tesla has distinguished itself from other carmakers for almost a decade by building sleek electric cars with industry-leading driving ranges and by developing new technology aimed at one day creating a fully autonomous, self-driving car. Though it has made significant strides in automated driving, owners should not rely on Tesla’s driver assistance features to necessarily add safety or to make driving easier, based on Consumer Reports’ extensive testing and experience.
Highlights From Our Testing
- Most features within Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Capability suite worked inconsistently, including the Autopark self-parking system that has been around for several years. Sometimes it would recognize a parking space as suitable, and we’d park in it. But when we drove by the same space again later, it was as if the parking spot didn’t exist. It also often didn’t park straight between the parking lines.
- Smart Summon, which allows the car to drive remotely to a location within a private parking lot, would sometimes drive on the wrong side of parking lot driving lanes, and it didn’t always stop at stop signs in the lot.
- Navigate on Autopilot, when activated, allows a Tesla traveling on the highway to autonomously take on- and off-ramps and make lane changes as long as a destination has been programmed into the navigation system. We found the performance to be inconsistent, with the system sometimes ignoring exit ramps on the set route, driving in the carpool lane, and staying in the passing lane for long periods of time. The feature also would completely disengage at times for no apparent reason.
- Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control is designed to come to a complete stop at all stoplights, even when they are green, unless the driver overrides the system. We found several problems with this system, including the basic idea that it goes against normal driving practice for a car to start slowing to a stop for a green light. At times, it also drove through stop signs, slammed on the brakes for yield signs even when the merge was clear, and stopped at every exit while going around a traffic circle.
Tesla’s active driving assistance systems are split into two parts: The first, Autopilot—which includes adaptive cruise control (Tesla refers to this as Traffic-Aware Cruise Control) and lane keeping assistance capabilities (Autosteer in Tesla terminology)—is now standard on every new Tesla.
For this evaluation, we focused on the optional Full Self-Driving Capability suite of driving assistance systems: Autopark, Auto Lane Change, Summon, Smart Summon, Navigate on Autopilot, and Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control.
Below, we explain each feature in the suite, its intended use, and how each performed in our tests.
How We Did the Testing
We ran our tests of the Full Self-Driving Capability features at various times of the day, in a variety of weather conditions, and in many different locations. We also made sure we had the most up-to-date hardware and software available, which during our testing was version 2020.24.6.4 running on Hardware 3. This is important to note, because Tesla’s over-the-air software updates can alter the way these features perform.
The first three features we evaluated for this story—Autopark, Auto Lane Change, and Summon—have been around for a few years, and some have improved over that time. However, Tesla’s most recent features—Smart Summon, Navigate on Autopilot, and Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control—gave us some significant concerns about their usefulness and safety.
Autopark “helps automatically parallel or perpendicular park your car, with a single touch,” according to information on Tesla’s website.
Here’s how the system works: As you cruise by either a regular or parallel parking spot in a parking lot, a “P” will pop up on the center display screen indicating that the system has found an appropriate spot. Tap the “P” on the touch screen and shift the gear selector into Reverse, and the system will automatically handle everything involved with parking the car, including steering and braking.
We found that it often worked as advertised, but other times it had difficulty engaging. In those cases, it wouldn’t recognize spots that seemed appropriate as you drove past them. This is a problem because you can’t “force” the system to work—it has to recognize an appropriate spot on its own. There seemed to be no consistent reason for it to sometimes recognize a parking spot as we drove by it and then not notice the exact same spot on another drive-by. Similar features have been around for years on cars from other automakers, and they can suffer from the same problems.
“Autopark also often didn’t park straight between the lines, to the point that we’d be embarrassed of ourselves if we got out of the car and realized we parked in such a cockeyed fashion,” says Kelly Funkhouser, head of connected and automated vehicle testing at CR.
Auto Lane Change
While not unique to Tesla vehicles, this feature is straightforward and works as advertised. It “assists in moving to an adjacent lane on the highway when Autosteer is engaged,” according to Tesla.
If the driver hits the turn-signal stalk to change lanes when Autopilot is activated, the car will perform the lane-change maneuver without any steering input needed from the driver. An animation appears on screen that shows where the car will move to, and it will wait to make the lane change if there is a car in the lane you want to move into.
“Ultimately, though, the safety of each lane change is still the driver’s responsibility,” Fisher says.
This feature is designed to allow the car to drive a short distance forward or backward without a driver behind the wheel. Summon “moves your car in and out of a tight space using the mobile app or key,” according to Tesla’s website.
When using the Tesla app on a smartphone, you can direct the car slowly forward or backward into a spot by pressing the corresponding button on the phone or key fob, and it can even be programmed to open and close your garage door. We found that it did, in fact, perform these functions, and we did some tests to mimic squeezing the car into a fairly tight parking spot between cars that were crowding the parking lane lines slightly, and it was able to complete the maneuver.
It works inconsistently, though. Our testers found that sometimes the system would line up well within the parking space but then back only halfway into the spot, leaving part of the car sticking out. Other times it would pull into the parking spot at an angle and call it a day.
It’s logical to think that Summon’s most practical use is to help deal with tight parking spaces so that you won’t have to squeeze yourself into or out of the car. However, the owner’s manual of CR’s Tesla Model 3 says that “parking in a narrow space limits the ability of the sensors to accurately detect the location of obstacles, increasing the risk of damage to Model 3 and/or surrounding objects.”
“Unfortunately, Tesla doesn’t give a best-use case for Summon, which leaves us perplexed as to what the system is really intended for if it’s not for parking in tight spaces—other than to impress your friends that your car can drive remotely,” Funkhouser says. “You also need to keep a very close eye on the car during these maneuvers to make sure it doesn’t run into anything.”
As the name implies, Smart Summon is intended to be a considerably more advanced feature than regular Summon. Tesla says it is “designed to allow your car to drive to you or a location of your choosing.” Tesla’s website further states that with Smart Summon, “your car will navigate more complex environments and parking spaces, maneuvering around objects as necessary to come find you in a parking lot.”
Using the Tesla smartphone app, the driver can either pinpoint a destination spot on the map for the car, or have the car drive to them using the Come to Me button.
We tried out Smart Summon in a number of scenarios, including the parking lot at CR headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y. Overall, the system proved to be unreliable. At times it would take overly complicated routes to reach us, and in other situations it might get stuck on an incline, then deactivate completely.
Even when Smart Summon was able to arrive at the specified location, it would spend time in the wrong lane of the parking lot, not pause for parking-lot stop signs, or take wide turns and head toward parked cars and then drive in Reverse to avoid a collision, as shown in the animation above. These are all situations that could cause confusion to other drivers, as well as be a potential hazard for any pedestrians in the car’s path.
Tesla states clearly on its website that “Smart Summon is only intended for use in private parking lots and driveways. You are still responsible for your car and must monitor it and its surroundings at all times and be within your line of sight because it may not detect all obstacles.” Private parking lots can include those for stores or restaurants, which means you can think of Smart Summon as your own personal valet service.
We can see the benefits of this feature, for instance having your car drive to meet you and your groceries near the store entrance on a rainy day. But Tesla doesn’t have all the bugs worked out yet, our testing shows. “At times it appeared erratic,” Funkhouser says. “We think after a customer experiences the system’s inconsistent behavior, they will likely not use it again.”
Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control
This is the most recent feature to join the Full Self-Driving Capability package, and it is used in conjunction with adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assistance. Tesla says when Autopilot is engaged, this system “identifies stop signs and traffic lights and automatically slows your car to a stop on approach, with your active supervision.” If an intersection is clear, the driver can tap the accelerator pedal or pull down on the gear selector stalk to keep the car going.
By Tesla’s own design, this feature will bring the car to a complete stop at any traffic light, regardless of whether the light is red, yellow, or green. The only time the Tesla will drive through a green light without stopping on its own is if there is a lead vehicle in front that it can follow through the light—or if you override the system.
In addition to the fact that it goes against normal driving etiquette for a car to start slowing to a stop for a green light, we also found that our Tesla would occasionally hit the brakes too far away from a stop sign, causing our driver to have to keep hitting the accelerator pedal or the gear selector stalk multiple times to move the car all the way to the stop sign. In other circumstances, the car simply wouldn’t recognize the stop sign at all, forcing our tester to have to hit the brakes to avoid driving right through the stop sign and into the intersection. In the animation above, it recognized the sign too late, slammed on the brakes, and came to a stop in the middle of the intersection.
The system also had problems navigating a roundabout, stopping at each exit as it went around the traffic circle. Other times it would slam on the brakes when approaching a yield sign, even if the merge was clear.
“In its current iteration, we think Tesla’s Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control will create more confusion and distraction for the driver,” Fisher says.
Tesla labels the Navigate on Autopilot and Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control features as “Beta” on the center display screen, which usually means the computer software is still in development. While you do have to opt in to use these features, our testing demonstrated a number of problems with using them in everyday driving.
For this article, we asked Tesla in an email for its definition of beta and we asked how a driver can tell what separates features listed as beta from those that are not. Tesla did not respond.
“Tesla has repeatedly rolled out crude beta features, some of which can put people’s safety at risk and shouldn’t be used anywhere but on a private test track or proving ground,” says William Wallace, manager of safety policy for Consumer Reports.
Tesla says these features will improve over time, but at this point they don’t seem worth the hefty $8,000 price tag.
“It seems like Tesla is focused on being the automaker with the most features rather than ensuring that the features work well,” Funkhouser says. “Its time and energy could be better spent on developing a driver monitoring system for Autopilot to significantly improve the safety and usefulness of that system.”
Tesla collects data from those who buy its cars to help improve it, but using developing technology like this on the road does not come without risk for you and other drivers. We’ll continue to evaluate these and other active driving assistance systems as they are available.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to add information that the California DMV has Tesla "under review" for statements it has made about its FSD feature and also information that NHTSA has initiated 28 special crash investigations into crashes involving Tesla vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems including Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability.
An earlier update on Oct. 23, 2020, added information about a price increase for FSD to $10,000 and that the company had started releasing a significant FSD update to limited owners in "beta" form.
This article was originally published on Sept. 4, 2020.