Tesla releases Full Self Driving Beta as regulators watch closely

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The U.S. auto safety regulator on Thursday said it was closely monitoring the release of a software version of Tesla intended to drive its cars themselves, and said it was poised to protect the public from safety risks.

Tesla Tuesday night released a beta or test version of what it calls a “Full Self Driving” software upgrade to an undisclosed number of “expert, cautious” drivers. The release sparked online messages from avid recipients sharing video clips of their car supposedly driving autonomously through the city streets at night.

During a Tesla earnings call on Wednesday, Chief Executive Elon Musk said the latest upgrade was scheduled to be widely released by the end of this year, with the system becoming more robust as it gathered more data.

“NHTSA has been briefed on Tesla’s new feature, which is an extension of the existing driver assistance system. The agency will closely monitor the new technology and will not hesitate to take action to protect (the) public from unreasonable safety risks,” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement.

The NHTSA said in July that its special crash investigation team had “investigated 19 accidents involving Tesla vehicles assuming some form of advanced driver assistance system was engaged at the time of the incident.”

Musk had promised self-driving for the company’s vehicles for years, but missed several self-imposed deadlines.

Researchers, regulators and insurance groups say true self-driving is still years away and more complex than companies expected a few years ago. They have criticized Tesla’s promotion of its existing semi-automatic autopilot system as dangerously misleading.

A consortium of self-driving technology companies, Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE), including Ford Motor Co, General Motors and Waymo, Google’s self-driving unit, criticized Tesla’s approach.

“Road testing is a serious responsibility and using untrained consumers to validate beta-level software on public roads is dangerous and inconsistent with existing guidelines and industry standards,” PAVE said in a statement Thursday.

The autopilot and similar advanced driver assistance systems can assist steering, braking and acceleration under limited conditions, usually on highways.

Tesla’s website describes the new software release as “Autosteer on city streets,” and says the system requires active driver supervision and does not make the car autonomous.

Tesla owners can purchase “Full Self Driving” for $ 8,000 in hopes of eventually receiving the upgrade, with the price hitting $ 2,000 Monday, Musk said Thursday.

On Twitter, Tesla owners who received the test version posted videos of their experiences, claiming that the car “sees literally everything”, set indicators and took turns even with no clear lane markings.

They also posted a photo of the software update’s release notes, stating that the system “might be doing something wrong at the worst,” urging drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and pay extra attention.

Reuters was unable to reach Tesla for comment on NHTSA’s statement and to confirm the authenticity of the release note.

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