You need to understand the levels of autonomy because, spoiler alert, Teslas aren't self-driving.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
ExpertiseAutomotive technology, smart home, digital health.Credentials
Tesla does not build self-driving cars. Neither does General Motors, nor Ford. In fact, there isn't a single self-driving car on sale today. That's because no system packed into a new vehicle meets the SAE Scale of Autonomy's standard to be considered a real autonomous car. That includes Super Cruise from General Motors, BlueCruise from Ford and Tesla's Full Self-Driving beta.
I largely agree with former Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt's view that "it's a bug that cars were invented before computers." In terms of sheer technical elegance, we never should have been at the controls in the first place.
Imagine we hadn't yet invented automobiles. Suppose I Iaid out a vision for using 3,300 pound machines to typically transport just our 175-pound selves in a process requiring we pay rapt attention to the use of a steering wheel and pedals to navigate roads composed of asphalt, brightly colored suggestions and poorly guided machines like ours which, even after years of refinement, killed 36,000 Americans each year. You'd send me packing.
History aside, vehicles driven by us make sense in only a minority of the cases where it happens. And all of this is coming from a guy who loves driving cars, but knows he can't ultimately justify it. Except that we've had no choice.
Which brings me to Level 4, which promises to offer such a choice. Of the six levels of vehicular autonomy, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, it's the one that promises to substantially relieve humans of the need to drive in the foreseeable future. A Level 4 car may not have a steering wheel or pedals, though elimination of them isn't part of its definition. And Level 4 is conditional, which is to say it works when it can work, as opposed to Level 5, which must work all the time for every trip and seems barely achievable in my lifetime.
One of the smartest carmakers out there, Toyota, has an interesting take on all this. It embraces both Level 3 and Level 4, rather than seeing the latter as a necessary graduation from the former. Toyota's concept of "guardian" describes a Level 3 car that acts as an exoskeleton of driver assists, shaping our human driving behavior and saving us from most of the dumb things we do behind the wheel. Their "chauffeur" concept is essentially Level 4 autonomy. Both are valuable concepts that are offered as choices rather than assuming we all abandon manual driving as soon as technically possible. Level 3 "guardian" technology would have a long and vital role taking the venom and tedium out of driving, though Level 4 is the more technically admirable in a big picture sense.
Check out the video as I try to make clear distinctions about each level of self-driving and put them in context against the current state of technology. You might be surprised to learn how many of the building blocks of future "driving" you have in your current car.