Tesla says it plans a software update next week to improve its controversial Smart Summon feature, underscoring the company’s beta-testing approach to rolling out new technologies.
In an earnings call with investors Wednesday night, the company also said it plans to move forward rapidly with launching other forms of automation using that beta-testing approach on a larger scale, which could involve potentially more dangerous driving situations.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Smart Summon has now been used over 1 million times, and the real-world feedback it’s getting from those trips is enabling quick improvements. Using data gathered from customers’ cars in real time also helped Tesla improve its Autopilot driver-assistance system, Musk said on the call with investors.
In online marketing materials (and in public comments from Musk ), Tesla has said owners using a smartphone can summon their vehicles to come pick them up to help in everyday situations, such as to avoid walking across a parking lot in the rain or with an armful of groceries.
In our first look at Smart Summon , Consumer Reports found that the automation is glitchy and the vehicles could quickly become confused by other activity in parking lots. Rather than getting a finished product for $6,000, consumers are buying the opportunity to be Tesla’s beta testers. Musk is indicating that more complete automation, for all driving situations, is coming online later this year.
“At low speeds, experimenting with this developing technology may cause some fender benders,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “But we’re very worried about what’s going to happen when this goes large-scale at higher speeds.”
Musk reiterated on the investor call that Smart Summon is the first important element of a package of technologies that Tesla markets as “Full Self Driving.” He says that Full Self Driving will improve enough so that cars will be able to drive themselves in most situations, with driver supervision, by the end of this year. By the end of 2020, Tesla envisions that the self-driving capability will be so proficient that Tesla owners will be able to turn on their vehicles unsupervised, enabling them to operate as robotaxis.
Tesla Owners as Beta Testers
Tesla is improving Smart Summon like it did with technologies that automate steering, braking, and acceleration during highway driving, such as Autopilot, and Navigate, which enables automatic lane changes.
“This really illustrates the value of having a massive fleet, because it allows us to collect these corner cases and learn from them, and use street learning and become rapidly better just as Navigate and Autopilot did on the freeway,” Musk said. “This is really just the beginning as we collect more data.”
Tesla is working out the challenges of self-driving cars operating in low-speed environments through Smart Summon, Musk said. It already has worked out high-speed, highway driving with Autopilot, he said. The company will be focusing on intermediate-speed situations, where cars have to interpret dynamic, changing situations, such as stop signs and changing traffic signals, he said. Musk is indicating that by the end of 2019, Tesla vehicles will be able to drive themselves in most situations but will still need supervision by a driver.
“Relying on a human driver to take over in a split-second emergency just doesn’t work,” Fisher says. “This could be a tragedy waiting to happen.”