Tesla Full Self-Driving: An overview of how it works
We'll also dive into how much this feature costs and why it's part of a new federal investigation.
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 PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
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If there is one piece of technology that's pretty optimistic, it's Tesla's Full Self-Driving system. There are no self-driving cars on sale today, despite what "FSD" -- as Tesla owners and CEO Elon Musk refer to it as -- promises. We'll dive into what's actually included in FSD, how much it costs and what you want to be aware of when it comes to this system.
While the term "full self-driving" leaves little ambiguity about its aspirations, the technology accomplishes far less than the words imply. As of this writing in August, 2021, FSD is actually a sophisticated version of Level 2 driver assistance, as defined by SAE International, arbiter of many of the world's automotive standards.
Level 2 driver assistance requires the presence of two or more driver assistance technologies working simultaneously and, critically, as driver supports, not as substitutes for driver attention or operation. In the case of Tesla's FSD, as well as systems like GM's SuperCruise, this means:
Speed control via automatic braking and acceleration.
Object detection and spacing, whether that's a car being followed or a pedestrian being avoided.
Even with all these technologies in concert, the SAE definition of Level 2 reminds us that the driver must remain in full control of the car and oversee its operation at all times. Level 2 replaces some muscle effort more than it replaces much mental effort.
In the gulf between what it's called and what it does, Tesla FSD lies somewhere between a massive overpromise and potentially dangerous innuendo. While many vehicle autonomy technologies have had a high-profile incident or even fatal accident, Tesla's technology has earned more than its share of scrutiny. I normally don't begrudge the auto industry its indulgences in audacious marketing, but when it comes to something as important and risky as vehicle autonomy, I have to draw the line. Tesla's absurd naming of Full Self-Driving to be a detriment to the overall progress of vehicle autonomy: Regulators, insurers and car buyers need to have faith in the tech if its vast benefits are going to scale, and FSD-inspired stupidity won't get us there.
Bottom line: Tesla Full Self-Driving is Level 2 driver assistance, not unlike what some other carmakers offer. You can pay $10,000 or $199 a month to access it in your Tesla, and you might need a $1,500 hardware upgrade to get it.