Big Bets and Broken Promises: A Timeline of Tesla's Self-Driving Aspirations

From the first mandatory federal auto safety regulations to Elon Musk’s wildest dreams, here’s the history of how Tesla got to where it is today

Tesla Model S Plaid Photo: Tesla

In the 13 years since Tesla built its first Roadster, the automaker has gained an impressive reputation for taking on established automotive practices. After bringing the first modern mass-market electric car to the American public, Tesla CEO Elon Musk turned to the tricky problem of vehicle automation, promising customers that Tesla models bought today could eventually become fully autonomous.

While software suites such as Autopilot and Full Self-Driving Capability represent impressive technical achievements, they have also been criticized by regulators and safety advocates for poor performance and misleading marketing that lulls drivers into a false sense of security. So far, there have been at least 10 deaths and 33 crashes in the U.S. involving Tesla vehicles where Autopilot was suspected to be a factor, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Here’s how Tesla grew from a Silicon Valley startup into the world’s most valuable auto company—and the events that aligned to make that happen.

Sept. 9, 1966

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act is passed, giving the federal government a mandate to set rules for automotive safety for the first time in U.S. history. Even though Tesla won’t start making cars for four more decades, these rules—and those established since—are the ones that the company will be held to. By 1970, Congress consolidates recall and auto safety authority under NHTSA.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs auto and highway safety act.
President Lyndon Johnson signs the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

1990s

In a step toward the dream of a self-driving car, Congress instructs the Department of Transportation and the National Automated Highway System Consortium to demonstrate an “automated highway system.” During this decade, vehicle autonomy trials also take place in Europe.

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Adaptive cruise control (ACC), one of two key technologies that will lead to the development of Autopilot, debuts in Japan on the Toyota Celsior. It uses radar to warn the driver if the vehicle ahead is slowing down, and automatically applies the brakes if the driver doesn’t respond. In 1998, Mercedes-Benz debuts the similar Distronic ACC system on the S-Class in Europe and the U.S. Over the next two decades, ACC systems will proliferate across the industry. These systems do not make cars self-driving but can take some of the stress out of highway driving.

1998-2002 Mercedes S-Class
A Mercedes S-Class featuring Distronic adaptive cruise control.

Photo: Daimler Photo: Daimler

2000

The other key technology behind Autopilot, lane keeping assistance, begins appearing on commercial trucks in Europe. It can warn drivers if they have crossed a painted line on the road. By the middle of the decade, the systems have become available on some high-end vehicles. They have since evolved to control steering inputs to keep a vehicle in its lane.

July 1, 2003

Tesla is founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning as a car company that’s also a technology company. PayPal co-founder Elon Musk becomes chairman in 2004 and is later referred to as a co-founder.

February 2008

The Lotus-based Tesla Roadster debuts as the first mainstream electric vehicle powered by lithium-ion batteries. Musk, who led the design of the Roadster, becomes CEO in 2008. Under his watch, Tesla will grow into the first modern mass-market manufacturer of EVs.

Jim Travers in Tesla at Press Event
A 2008 Tesla Roadster.

Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

June 22, 2012

Tesla begins deliveries of its new Model S sedan to customers. Thanks to range of 265 miles (estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency) and superb on-the-road performance, it earned Consumer Reports’ top score in 2013. We called the EV “groundbreaking” and “a revelation.”

Tesla Model S 2013
A 2012 Tesla Model S.

Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

October 2014

Tesla starts equipping Model S sedans with hardware that can automate some steering, braking, and acceleration functions. Although the software is not yet active, it calls the feature Autopilot.

October 2015

Tesla releases Tesla Version 7.0 software, enabling Autopilot as a feature for Model S drivers. It combines adaptive cruise control and Autosteer, a lane centering function designed to keep Tesla vehicles within painted lane lines. A company blog post explicitly says that Autopilot is not a self-driving system and that “the driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car,” but it also reiterates that Tesla vehicles are equipped with hardware “to allow for the incremental introduction of self-driving technology.”

January 2016

Tesla CEO Elon Musk tells reporters on a conference call that the Autopilot system is “probably better” than a human driver. He also promises that Teslas will be able to drive significantly better than humans within two to three years, and he says that within two years it will be possible to remotely summon a Tesla from across the country.

Jan. 20, 2016

Shortly after Musk’s announcement, 23-year-old Gao Yaning is killed in the province of Hebei, China, on the way home from a family wedding when the Tesla Model S he is driving crashes into the back of a street sweeper, according to a Jalopnik interview with the victim’s father. The victim’s family sues Tesla, claiming that Autopilot was in use at the time of the crash.

February 2016

Consumer Reports tests Tesla’s new Summon feature, which Tesla claims makes the car able to drive itself for short distances without anyone in the car in order to enter or leave a parking space or garage, like a robovalet. We discovered several scenarios that could make it difficult for a user to stop the vehicle—including a dropped key fob or an accidental shutdown of the app while the car was in motion. After reporting these issues to Tesla, the automaker issued an over-the-air update that addressed the shortcoming that same month.

May 7, 2016

Joshua Brown dies while using Autopilot after his Model S crashes into the side of a tractor-trailer that was crossing a roadway near Williston, Fla. Brown was a Tesla enthusiast and Navy veteran who had previously made videos of himself using Autopilot—one of which was retweeted by Elon Musk. The crash is the first Autopilot-related death in the U.S., and both NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board investigate. Afterward, Tesla will update Autopilot software to reduce the amount of time a driver can spend with their hands off the wheel before being alerted.

Tesla model S Crash 2016
Joshua Brown was killed when his Tesla Model S drove into the side of a tractor-trailer near Williston, Fla.

Source: NTSB Source: NTSB

Oct. 19, 2016

Tesla says that the new vehicles it produces going forward “will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.” In order to access the hardware, however, owners must buy a $5,000 Enhanced Autopilot feature as well as a $3,000 Full Self-Driving Capability feature.

November 2016

Tesla publishes a video on its website showing a vehicle driving with no intervention from the person in the driver’s seat, whose hands remain off the steering wheel the entire time. The video lasts over 2 minutes and is preceded by a note saying, “The person in the driver’s seat is only there for legal reasons. He is not doing anything. The car is driving itself.” A 2017 class-action lawsuit alleges that the video is misleading and pieced together to edit out hundreds of instances of driver input. Tesla settled the lawsuit for more than $5.4 million in 2018, and many Tesla owners were awarded between $25 and $280. The video is still being used for marketing on Tesla’s website, and is prominently featured in the Autopilot section of Tesla’s website.

Elon Musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Photo: VCG Photo: VCG

January 2017

After its investigation into the crash that killed Joshua Brown, NHTSA issues a final report that says the crash was not the result of a defect. The agency also claims that Tesla vehicles have had fewer crashes with airbag deployment after the introduction of Autopilot. However, an independent analysis published in February 2019 finds flaws in that report and indicates that crashes with airbag deployment may have increased after the introduction of Autopilot.

Sept. 28, 2017

After completing its investigation of the Florida crash, the NTSB, which investigates all aviation and other significant transportation crashes, recommends that Tesla and other automakers—including Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Nissan, Volkswagen, and Volvo—should do a better job of monitoring drivers as they’re using the systems, and asked for a response within 90 days. Then NTSB-chair Robert Sumwalt says that only Tesla ignored the request, according to a Reuters report.

March 23, 2018

Walter Huang, an Apple employee, is killed when his Model X crashes into a barrier in Mountain View, Calif., while Autopilot is in use. A game was active on his phone before the crash, according to an NTSB report. Earlier, Huang had told family members that, when using Autopilot, his Model X had experienced issues when it was near the same highway barrier it later hit, the NTSB report said.

Tesla Model X crash site
The aftermath of the crash that killed Walter Huang in Mountain View, Calif.

Photo: NTSB / S. Engleman Photo: NTSB / S. Engleman

April 12, 2018

The NTSB removes Tesla as a party to its investigation into the crash that killed Huang after Tesla publicly releases crash data and speculates on the cause of the crash, violating an agreement between the NTSB and the automaker that Tesla would not comment on the crash during the course of the investigation.

April 29, 2018

On an expressway just outside Tokyo, a Tesla driver with Autopilot engaged strikes and kills Yoshihiro Umeda, who had been standing on the side of a roadway assisting at the scene of a crash. The driver, who court documents indicated had fallen asleep at some point during a half-hour of Autopilot, was convicted of criminal negligence and sentenced to three years in prison. A lawsuit alleges that Umeda’s death is the first known Tesla Autopilot-related death involving a pedestrian.

June 2018

NHTSA issues a cease-and-desist order against the seller of Autopilot Buddy, a device that makes Tesla’s steering wheel sensors “think” that a driver’s hands are pulling on the wheel, allowing drivers to engage Autopilot without paying attention to the task of driving. A similar device, now marketed as a cell phone holder, is still for sale.

September 2018

After a series of tweets regarding Tesla’s stock price and plans to take the company private that the Securities and Exchange Commission labels “misleading,” Elon Musk steps down as chairman of Tesla. Musk and Tesla agree to pay $40 million in penalties, and the company agrees to oversee Musk’s communications. In 2020, Musk tweets what’s widely interpreted as a vulgarity at the SEC. In 2021, the Wall Street Journal reports that two of Musk’s tweets have violated the SEC agreement.

March 1, 2019

In a crash that is similar to the one that killed Joshua Brown in 2016, 50-year-old Jeremy Banner is killed in his 2018 Model 3 when it drives underneath a truck in Delray Beach, Fla. Court documents say that Autopilot was engaged at the time of the crash.

Tesla Model S crashed
Jeremy Banner was killed when his Tesla Model S drove underneath a tractor-trailer.

Photo: NTSB / Harley Sheryl Photo: NTSB / Harley Sheryl

April 2019

Elon Musk claims that Tesla will have over a million fully autonomous “robotaxis” on the road by mid-2020 whose value will skyrocket. There are currently no Tesla robotaxis on the road.

May 2019

After Tesla releases an update to Navigate on Autopilot, a feature designed to automate some lane changing functions, CR tests the feature. We found that it cut off other cars without leaving enough space, failed to pass in the correct lane, and at times struggled to merge into traffic.

Tesla Model 3 Navigate with Autopilot
A Tesla equipped with Navigate on Autopilot initiating a pass on the right.

Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

August 2019

In its investigation of a nonfatal crash between a Tesla and a parked fire truck, the NTSB again criticizes Autopilot, saying that Tesla’s design makes it too easy for drivers to mentally disengage from the task of driving.

October 2019

Consumer Reports tests Tesla’s Smart Summon feature, which the automaker claims can “summon” a Tesla vehicle to drive itself across a parking lot without any occupants inside the vehicle. We find that it has difficulty negotiating a parking lot, crosses lane lines, and wanders erratically “like a drunken or distracted driver.” Three years earlier, Musk tweeted that the Summon feature “will eventually find you even if you are on the other side of the country.”

Dec. 29, 2019

Jenna Monet of Arizona is killed when the Model 3 her husband is driving collides with the rear of a parked fire truck in Indiana, according to local news reports. The crash is now on a list that NHTSA is investigating because of potential Autopilot involvement.

February 2020

At a hearing, the NTSB calls on NHTSA to set stricter standards on Autopilot, and it argues that driver overreliance on Autopilot has led to crashes and deaths.

July 2020

A German court rules that Tesla has made misleading claims about Autopilot’s current and future capabilities.

August 2020

David and Sheila Brown, who had been married for 52 years, are killed in Saratoga, Calif., after their Tesla veers off a highway. Court documents show that Autopilot was active at the time of the crash.

Fall 2020

Consumer Reports conducts a series of evaluations of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Capability features. We find that they work inconsistently. For example, 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. In addition to the unusual behavior of stopping at green lights, our Tesla also drove through stop signs, slammed on the brakes for yield signs when the merge was clear, and stopped at every exit while going around a traffic circle.

Tesla-Smart-Summon video
Tesla Smart Summon in action in CR's tests of FSD Beta.

Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

October 2020

Tesla increases the price of Full-Self Driving Capability by about $2,000, to $10,000—and some owners of early-build vehicles will require an additional $1,000 hardware upgrade.

March 2021

According to records released to the legal advocacy group PlainSite, an attorney for Tesla tells California officials that Tesla vehicles equipped with Full Self-Driving Capability are not truly self-driving, and still require a driver to steer, brake, or accelerate as needed.

May 2021

After multiple reports of Tesla drivers climbing into the backseats of their vehicles with Autopilot engaged, Consumer Reports tests a Tesla Model Y on our closed track and determines that it is possible for a Tesla vehicle to drive on Autopilot without anyone in the driver’s seat. In the following weeks, Tesla tells some owners that it is activating a camera inside the vehicle to “detect and alert driver inattentiveness while Autopilot is engaged.” This new driver monitoring feature is not active on all Tesla vehicles.

Driving a Tesla with nobody in the driver's seat.

June 2021

In an unprecedented move, NHTSA begins ordering manufacturers to report any crash involving an injury, a fatality, or property damage that happens while or immediately after a vehicle is automating some driving tasks.

July 2021

Tesla releases the latest prototype version of its driving assistance software, popularly known as FSD Beta 9, to certain vehicle owners. On Twitter, Musk urges users to “be paranoid” because “there will be unknown issues” with the software. Some owners posted videos of the software in action that show vehicles missing turns, scraping against bushes, and heading toward parked cars.

July 26, 2021

On a quarterly earnings call, Musk tells investors and reporters that he is confident FSD-equipped Teslas “will be able to drive themselves with the safety levels substantially greater than that of the average person.”

August 2021

NHTSA opens a preliminary safety defect investigation into Autopilot. U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., call for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate what they call Tesla’s potentially deceptive marketing practices surrounding Autopilot and FSD, including the use of the phrase “full self-driving” for a feature that does not make a vehicle fully autonomous.

2018 Tesla firetruck crash Utah
A nonfatal crash involving a Tesla Model S and an emergency vehicle outside Salt Lake City.

Photo: South Jordan, Utah, Police Department Photo: South Jordan, Utah, Police Department

Aug. 31, 2021

NHTSA orders Tesla to share information about the design of Autopilot and Full-Self Driving, any reports of crashes involving the technologies, and any marketing materials that state what the technologies can do. The information is due Oct. 22, 2021.

Sept. 25, 2021

Tesla allows more drivers to access FSD Beta, provided they achieve a high enough “safety score,” which measures driving metrics including the frequency of hard braking and aggressive turning.

Tesla Model Y
The opt-in screen for FSD Beta.

Photo: Kelly Funkhouser/Consumer Reports Photo: Kelly Funkhouser/Consumer Reports

Oct. 22, 2021

Tesla submits a partial response to NHTSA’s earlier inquiry, claiming that the information requested by NHTSA constitutes confidential business information.

Oct. 24, 2021

Tesla pulls back the release of 10.3 software, which the company had already made available for drivers to use on public roads. In a tweet, Musk says the updated software does not perform as well on left turns at traffic lights.

Oct. 29, 2021

Tesla issues a recall for over 11,000 vehicles using FSD beta software whose owners reported sudden braking while in motion, an issue known as “phantom braking.” By the time the recall is issued, Tesla has already made an over-the-air update to fix the problem.


Head shot photo of CRO Cars CIA editor Keith Barry

Keith Barry

Despite my love for quirky, old European sedans like the Renault Medallion, it's my passion to help others find a safe, reliable car that still puts a smile on their face—even if they're stuck in traffic. When I'm not behind the wheel or the keyboard, you can find me exploring a new city on foot or planning my next trip.