Would You Trust Your Car to Drive Itself, Sans Occupant?

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
would you trust your car to drive itself sans occupant

As you read here yesterday, Tesla’s biggest over-the-air software update to date has brought Model S, X, and 3 owners a host of new features, with an especially ominous (or exciting, depending on your level of trust) feature reserved for the true believers.

That Software Version 10.0 feature is Smart Summon — a way of getting your vehicle to drive to you upon exiting a building. Open the mobile app on your phone, press the necessary buttons, and your Tesla will pilot itself like the Mary Celeste to your arranged rendezvous point. Presumably, you’ll have your hands full of children and shopping, though Tesla says you’ll have to keep tabs on your vehicle — keeping it in in your field of vision — lest you find yourself liable for a fender-bender or worse.

It kind of defeats the purpose of the feature. If your attention is distracted by whiny kids or something else, how is it more convenient (or even possible) to stand there and watch your car make its way towards you, alert and ready to release that button and stop the Tesla in the event of a wayward shopper, vehicle, or rogue action on the part of your own car? How hard is it to walk over and get into your own car and drive off, especially considering the feature’s beta nature and Tesla’s long list of Autopilot fails?

Naturally, owners began testing Smart Summon the second it arrived.

Not everyone gets the feature, of course — just those who plopped down extra cash upon purchase for Full Self-Driving Capability or Enhanced Autopilot.

The feature guides the car to your position using your phone’s GPS as a target and the vehicle’s Autopilot hardware and software as a means of feeling out the route. An owner can stop the car or resume its journey by pressing or releasing the “COME TO ME” button.

You can also dial up another target via the map displayed on the app. Tesla stresses that the feature is only to be used in private parking lots or driveways; again, owners are liable for any incidents that occur.

So, @elonmusk – My first test of Smart Summon didn't go so well. @Tesla pic.twitter.com/yC1oBWdq1I

— Roddie Hasan – راضي (@eiddor) September 28, 2019

Roddie here claims he wasn’t sure if his Model 3’s automatic emergency braking stopped the car first, or his finger. If it’s the former, then good. The latter? Well, that’s a problem.

Regardless, a close shave with that MDX.

Other videos — a slew of them, really — cropped up in the wake of the software update, nearly all of them showing Model 3s crawling hesitantly through near-empty parking lots as their owners tested out the feature. The journeys were uneventful, and nearly all of them were wholly unnecessary, given the speed at which the car travels. As a convenience feature, Smart Summon feels like more of a tool for the lazy (or those who hate getting wet and never carry an umbrella), than something that really saves you time and effort.

This something you don't see every day! pic.twitter.com/3GzOlixAuf

— Rich (@RichAllan501) September 27, 2019

Perhaps your author is overly cautious, but does anyone else get a sense of dread when they see a driverless Tesla creeping through a crowded parking lot, knowing full well the gauntlet of sudden dangers that crop up in these innocuous spaces? Darting kids, sudden backer-uppers, meandering grey-hairs?

At least when a driver turns on Autopilot, they’re inside the car and behind the wheel, presumably ready to take over at a moment’s notice (which still isn’t the safest situation, as history has shown). Here, Tesla fans would argue, it’s no different. The eagle-eyed driver will simply take their finger off the button and stop the car. But the owner standing outside the front door of a mall or grocery store isn’t going to see the same things as a driver. There’ll be part of the journey where the ground surrounding the car is obscured, when only the roof of their Model 3 is seen passing a row of cars.

And once the empty-parking-lot-isn’t-this-fun test phase ends for these owners, it’s assumed many will have complete confidence in their car’s ability to show up like a tip-hungry valet. Just how vigilant will they be a week, a month, or a year from now?

Tesla’s Smart Summon is a great achievement and a gimmick all at once. It’s a way of inserting driverless autonomous cars in complex public spaces when, at present, no Level 4 or 5-capable vehicle is operating in such areas without a safety driver. And the feds don’t seem to care. Frankly, it gives this writer the willies. Do you trust it, or do you feel this particular element of Tesla’s software update is premature?

[Image: Tesla]

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5 of 57 comments
  • Indi500fan Indi500fan on Sep 30, 2019

    Imagine trying to collect from Tesla insurance when your car gets bunged up in the lot by a robo-taxi Tesla. Will it send you a note (based on your license plate) of instructions to contact the company?

  • R Henry R Henry on Sep 30, 2019

    While the American system of tort lawsuits gets abused all too often, I look forward to learning of product liability attorneys suing the bejesus out of Tesla for releasing this defective product. This product will no doubt result in substantial damages for a large number of Tesla owners and motorist unlucky enough to be struck by a Tesla. As such Tesla will richly deserve its due penalties.

    • See 2 previous
    • TimK TimK on Sep 30, 2019

      @R Henry LOL — you nailed it — that domain is indeed reserved and shows as “coming soon”.

  • SCE to AUX I charge at home 99% of the time, on a Level 2 charger I installed myself in 2012 for my Leaf. My house is 1967, 150-Amp service, gas dryer and furnace; everything else is electric with no problems. I switched from gas HW to electric HW last year, when my 18-year-old tank finally failed.I charge at a for-pay station maybe a couple times a year.I don't travel more than an hour each way in my Ioniq 1 EV, so I don't deal much with public chargers. Despite a big electric rate increase this year, my car remains ridiculously cheap to operate.
  • ToolGuy 38:25 to 45:40 -- Let's all wait around for the stupid ugly helicopter. 😉The wheels and tires are cool, as in a) carbon fiber is a structural element not decoration and b) they have some sidewall.Also like the automatic fuel adjustment (gasoline vs. ethanol).(Anyone know why it's more powerful on E85? Huh? Huh?)
  • Ja-GTI So, seems like you have to own a house before you can own a BEV.
  • Kwik_Shift Good thing for fossil fuels to keep the EVs going.
  • Carlson Fan Meh, never cared for this car because I was never a big fan of the Gen 1 Camaro. The Gen 1 Firebird looked better inside and out and you could get it with the 400.The Gen 2 for my eyes was peak Camaro as far as styling w/those sexy split bumpers! They should have modeled the 6th Gen after that.