Elon Musk has long pressed his luck with respect to automated driving. His plan to offer a month-long free trial of features that Tesla has been charging $15,000 for would escalate the risk-taking to another level.
Musk tweeted this week that all Tesla cars in North America will get complimentary access to software marketed as Full Self-Driving, or FSD, once it’s “super smooth.” This is the same set of driver-support features the company recalled earlier this year after several meetings with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which raised concerns about Teslas traveling in unlawful or unpredictable ways.
FSD is part of Autopilot, which NHTSA also happens to be scrutinizing via two separate investigations into possible defects. The Justice Department has asked for documents related to both Autopilot and FSD. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has accused the company of misleading consumers, and both a customer and investor have sued in proposed class actions since September.
All this regulatory and legal heat hasn’t deterred Musk. During an earnings call last month, the chief executive officer alluded to the possibility of Tesla selling vehicles for zero upfront profit and realizing riches later from offering customers autonomy.
But Tesla’s failure to deliver on Musk’s self-driving claims — he predicted in 2019 that the company would have 1 million robotaxis on the road within roughly a year — and the amount Tesla has charged for FSD have limited adoption. The CEO declined to say during the call how FSD take rates have trended and didn’t directly address an analyst’s question on whether the company needed to discount its software along with its vehicles.
“There’ll be a little bit of two steps forward, one step back between releases,” Musk said of Tesla’s software rollout. He again forecast that this will be the year the year the company offers full autonomy, a claim that the enthusiast blog Electrek described as hard to believe or understand after many missed objectives and blown timelines.
Offering free FSD trials risks potential blowback from customers whose patience Tesla has already been testing. Tesla charged thousands of dollars for the capability before opening up access beyond a small pool of beta testers, but only to customers who passed safe-driving assessments. In August, Musk scolded an early-access customer who tweeted out videos showing an iteration of FSD that was struggling to handle basic driving tasks, telling him not to complain.
There’s also the straightforward risk of widespread availability of FSD leading to more crashes. Tesla has said that roughly 400,0000 customers in the US and Canada have purchased FSD. That’s a relatively small portion of the more than 4 million vehicles the company has built, somewhat limiting the potential for collisions.
So why is Musk plowing ahead anyway?
Tesla has emphasized how essential it is for the company to mass-collect data for the artificial intelligence it’s putting into vehicles. While it’s touted the hundreds of thousands of miles its cars drive daily, a free trial would generate loads of data from customers who haven’t yet put FSD to the test.
Another motivation may well be to leverage what Musk sees as a differentiator from the many electric vehicles other carmakers have rolled out in the years since Tesla last introduced a new passenger car — the Model Y — in early 2020.
EVs are going mainstream, and Tesla is counting on FSD to separate the company from the rest of the automotive pack.
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