A year ago, Tesla Inc set up a hastily organized conference call between Elon Musk and reporters. Tesla had something big to announce—big enough for the chief executive to open the floor to questions. That doesn’t happen very often. What followed wasn’t so much the unveiling of a new product as a plan for a product. Tesla’s driver-assistance platform, Autopilot, was about to begin a transformation to fully autonomous driving. Every Tesla would come with eight cameras, radar, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and a Nvidia Corp supercomputer. Once testing and regulatory approval were complete, Musk said, the car would be able to drive entirely by itself.
“The foundation is laid,” Musk proclaimed. Tesla was so confident, in fact, that it started selling its “Full Self Driving” feature for an additional $8,000 on any new Model X or Model S. Tesla’s timeline was, as is so often the case, years ahead of what most believed possible. Barclays Plc analyst Brian Johnson called it an “overly hyped product update,” and Tesla stock dropped 2.2 percent the next day. Still, to start charging for the feature surely implied Tesla was very far along—right?
Maybe not. What followed were months of setbacks, delays, and in-house turmoil. A year later, there’s still no sign of Full Self Driving, and even the less ambitious “Enhanced Autopilot” hasn’t quite reached parity with an earlier, discontinued version. The head of Tesla’s Autopilot division left in January, and six months later his successor did, too. Meanwhile, Tesla owners who paid thousands of dollars for the options filed a class action lawsuit, alleging they were tricked into buying a feature that doesn’t exist and—in some cases—an unsafe car. Tesla has yet to formally respond to those disgruntled drivers who want refunds and punitive damages, and the case is currently in mediation.
When Musk, 46, was asked in January at what point Full Self Driving features would noticeably depart from Enhanced Autopilot features, he replied, via Twitter, “3 months maybe, 6 months definitely.” Nine months later, it has yet to happen. A Tesla spokesperson said last week that “while it’s taken longer than we originally expected to roll out all Enhanced Autopilot features, the feature already provides significant assistance to drivers,” and added that the company is making “rapid progress” on new updates.
But no matter when Full Self Driving becomes a reality or how the litigation ends, the legacy of over-promising and under-delivering has already besmirched the company’s success as an electric car maker and assisted-driving innovator. Meanwhile, as Tesla tries to fulfill its promises, rivals haven’t been sitting still. General Motors Co, Volkswagen AG, Volvo AB, Daimler AG and a Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi alliance are all promising 2018 vehicles with the features that once set Tesla apart. “Tesla had an early start,” said Salim Morsy, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “but there’s a huge amount” of money being pumped into autonomous electric vehicles now. “The releases we’re expecting from the Volkswagen Group or Volvo or Daimler in the next two years will have a big impact on Tesla,” he said.
Musk, well known for setting wildly aggressive deadlines and then missing them, averages being more than four months late on his predictions when it comes to Tesla. This “Musk Doctrine” of pushing the industry forward, while never setting a deadline he’s likely to meet, has worked in the past. Now, however, Tesla’s habit of falling far behind on promises is colliding with its first mass-market vehicle. The Model 3, widely seen as central to the company’s survival, is already slipping from its schedule. Tesla took half-a-million reservations but has produced just 260 vehicles in its first quarter of production—far short of Musk’s projection of more than 1,500. Though it’s early days in the ramp-up of the Model 3, this is an especially dangerous time for Tesla to be testing the boundaries of consumer trust. Autopilot’s failure to launch as advertised hasn’t helped.
At a private event for Tesla owners in Amsterdam last week, this frustration felt by devotees broke into the open. “We’d just like to know: When is our Autopilot 2 going to be up to par?” called a voice from the balcony to Jon McNeill, Tesla’s president of sales and service, referring to Enhanced Autopilot. “Because that’s really what we need.” “We’ve been behind, so I don’t want to make pure promises,” McNeill answered. “Safe to say, you will—I think—be pleased where we are over the coming weeks and months.”