Tesla Can't Promise Driverless Cars in 2021, Engineer Tells California DMV

Alexandria Sage | Reuters
  • According to California Department of Motor Vehicles documents, Tesla employees told regulators that the company may not be able to develop a truly autonomous vehicle by the end of 2021.
  • The employees' comments contradict promises by CEO Elon Musk who said a Tesla would "be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year" on a January earnings call.
  • Musk's messaging around driverless vehicle technology does not always "match engineering reality," employees told the DMV, according to the regulator's meeting notes.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk's messaging around driverless vehicle technology does not always "match engineering reality," according to meeting notes by the California Department of Motor Vehicles released late Thursday.

Tesla employees, including the company's director of Autopilot software, CJ Moore, and associate general counsel, Eric Williams, could not confirm to the California regulators that Tesla would be able to produce a truly driverless vehicle this year, despite the CEO's guidance that it would.

In a January earnings call, Musk said he was "highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year."

At an Axel Springer award ceremony in December, Musk said, "I'm extremely confident of achieving full autonomy and releasing it to the Tesla customer base next year." The moderator asked him if he was talking about "Level 5," or fully driverless, technology, and Musk nodded and said, "Yes, yes."

A team from the California DMV Autonomous Vehicles branch asked Tesla employees about Musk's messaging regarding Level 5 autonomy during a March 9 meeting. The correspondence was originally obtained by legal transparency group Plainsite through a California Public Records Act request.

DMV regulators wrote in their meeting notes that "DMV asked CJ to address, from an engineering perspective, Elon's messaging about L5 capacity by the end of the year."

The notes continue, "Elon's tweet does not match engineering reality per CJ. Tesla is at Level 2 currently."

In its memo, the DMV is referring to CJ Moore. Level 2 technology refers to a driver assistance system that is not autonomous but instead requires a driver to remain in the driver's seat, ready to steer the car at any time.

Musk has frequently touted the company's Full Self-Driving, or FSD, and FSD beta functionality on Twitter, as he did in a series of tweets on March 6:

In a follow-up letter to Tesla on April 21, Miguel Acosta, chief of the Autonomous Vehicles Branch of the California DMV, cautioned the electric-vehicle maker that it must meticulously communicate the proper use and limits of its systems as it expands the FSD beta program to more drivers.

"As Tesla is aware, the public's misunderstanding about the limits of the technology and its misuse can have tragic consequences," Acosta wrote.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened more than two dozen investigations into Tesla-involved collisions. The National Transportation Safety Board has warned that Tesla is using drivers on public roads to test advanced autonomous features and called on NHTSA to issue stricter guidelines around the technology.

Tesla was not immediately available to comment on the DMV memo.

Read the full California DMV memo on Plainsite.

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