Tesla told the California DMV Elon Musk exaggerated Full Self-Driving timeline

'From an engineering perspective,' a Level 5 Autopilot is a long way away.

Aly Song / reuters

Tesla employees have privately admitted Elon Musk overstated when the company's Autopilot driver-assist system will have full autonomous capabilities. PlainSite has shared a memo (via The Verge) detailing a teleconference meeting representatives from Tesla, including director of Autopilot software CJ Moore, took with the California DMV on March 9th, 2021. The agency asked those employees to speak to various aspects of Tesla's Autopilot software, including the Full Self-Driving beta expansion that occured around that time. But the most interesting portion is the DMV's questions about how Musk has described Autopilot.

Narrowing in on a statement the executive made during the company's Q4 earnings call in January in which he said he was "highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of human this year," the DMV asked Moore to speak to those claims "from an engineering perspective." Unfortunately, the memo doesn't directly quote Moore, but here's what it says about his response:

"Tesla is at Level 2 currently. The ratio of driver interaction would need to be in the magnitude of 1 or 2 million miles per driver interaction to move into higher levels of automation. Tesla indicated that Elon is extrapolating on the rates of improvement when speaking about L5 capabilities. Tesla couldn't say if the rate of improvement would make it to L5 by end of calendar year."

There's a lot to unpack there. Level 5 (L5) autonomy involves a car driving independently in any condition and without human supervision. At Level 2, Autopilot has a long way to go before it offers anywhere near that kind of functionality. As a Tesla owner, you still need to keep your hands on the wheel and attention on the road when you enable Autopilot.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has frequently criticized Tesla for overselling Autopilot's capabilities to consumers. As just one example, following a fatal Model 3 crash in 2019, the agency said the design of Autopilot contributed to the incident in part because the driver could turn it on it in a context Tesla hadn't designed it to handle.

Tesla's website has long been less bullish on the capabilities of Autopilot than its CEO. "Autopilot advanced safety and convenience features are designed to assist you with the most burdensome parts of driving," the website says. "Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous." But those disclaimers mean little when Musk contradicts them. The company's branding doesn't help either. Both "Autopilot" and "Full Self-Driving" suggest a level of capability neither system has yet.

We've reached out to Tesla for comment. We'll update this article when and if we hear back from the company.