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Tesla Full Self-Driving Explained: A $199/month (Almost) Empty Promise

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On July 16, 2021, Tesla made the Full Self-Driving (FSD) feature available via a $199 monthly subscription.

If you think that price is too high, well, you kind of miss the point! But, cost-wise, that’s quite reasonable considering the nutty alternative and the nature of the feature.

This post will briefly explain all you need to know about FSD, a complicated feature with a misleading name.

Dong’s note: I first published this post on July 16, 2021, and updated it on August 19 with additional relevant information.

Important update

I wrote this post based on an early 2021 Model Y Long Range that comes with a RADAR sensor.

Tesla removed the RADAR from its Model Y and Model 3 shipped after May 2021 to transition to the so-called “Tesla Vision,” which has an adverse impact on the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features, including the reduction of max cruise speed to significantly below 90 MPH.

While this post still applies to RADAR-enabled Teslas, for more, check out my piece on driving automation as a whole.

Tesla Model Y Desert
Here’s my Model Y in the middle of a desert. It sure didn’t drive itself here.

Tesla Full Self-Driving: It’s not even a glass-half-full

To understand Full Self-Driving, you first need to understand Autopilot.

Tesla’s Autopilot

Autopilot is the now famous, also misleadingly-named, yet excellent standard feature available in all Tesla models — you don’t need to pay extra for it.

It’s basically an intelligent cruise control that can automatically manage your car’s speed (based on the traffic), steering, and braking.

In other words, on freeways and streets with clear lane dividers, the car drives itself until you change lanes, brake, or make a turn. Any of those actions will disengage Autopilot.

You’re still required to keep your hands on the steering wheel and put some pressure on it now and then — from every 20 seconds to around a minute — depending on how fast you travel.

That said, Autopilot should have been named and is more of a “co-pilot” feature. My take is that you can rely on it extensively, but sure not 100%. Not even close!

For example, the car wouldn’t avoid relatively large random objects on the road, like a pothole, roadkill, or even a broken tire. And I noted that it might not even register large stationary objects, like a parked car.

Once in a while, you might experience what many drivers call “phantom braking,” where the car abruptly slows down significantly for no reason. (I’ve never experienced this on my Model Y but have heard about it from others).

Most importantly, the car’s Autopilot disengages when its system can’t deal with the real-time condition, and the driver is expected to take control immediately. This can happen at any given time, though in my experience, mostly on winding roads or when lane dividers become invisible.

Asus GS AX3000 Wi Fi SettingsAsus RT AX3000 Wi Fi Settings
Asus GS-AX3000 vs RT-AX3000 (right): The two routers share almost the same Wi-Fi settings. Both support the 160MHz on the 5GHz band.

Still, Autopilot is largely excellent on freeways. It makes driving much less stressful during long road trips, if not more relaxing and fun. You can eat a sandwich, drink a hot coffee with ease, or even turn your body around to briefly check on your baby riding in the backseat now and then.

The point is Autopilot gives you some freedom to do little things you generally can’t without it. It’s more than enough for most of us in most situations.

I speak from the more-than-7,000-and-counting-high-way-miles personal experience with my 2021 Model Y Long Range.

But if for some reason, you want the car to drive itself — at a higher automation level, that is — without you doing anything, you’d need the next step up. That is where the so-called “Full Self-Driving” comes into play. Supposedly.

Full Self-Driving: Expectations, cost, and reality

Since first introduced in 2015, Full Self-Driving has been a promised-to-be-promising add-on feature that eventually makes the car autonomous. Or at least that’s what Tesla wants you to think, judging from the feature’s name.

When available, FSD blends with Autopilot in the form of a few extra checkboxes on the car’s touchscreen.

Specifically, FSD adds the following on top of Autopilot:

  • Auto Navigation: Auto turning, taking freeway exits/entrances, etc, based on the current navigation setting.
  • Auto Lane Change: Passing slower cars, picking the clearest lane on a freeway.
  • Summon: The car can come to you in a parking lot, or you can move it in and out of a tight spot remotely.
  • Auto Park.
  • Traffic light stop and control.

So basically, with FSD, the car can almost take you home. You’d hope so anyway. But in reality, you need to take all those bullet points above with nuances.

That’s because the items listed above, in my experience, are all gimmicks, at least for now. (I told Elon Musk that.) They are fun to impress your passenger, but you know you can’t count on them.

And up to now, Tesla has made it clear, on the user manual, that FSD doesn’t (yet) make the car autonomous and still requires you to be present with hands on the wheel. (A lot of folks ignored that, some died doing so).

In other words, for now, you can see FSD as the enhanced version of Autopilot — there used to be a feature called Enhanced Autopilot (EAP), which became part of FSD a year or so ago.

Tesla Full Self Driving as Subscription
Here’s the notice about Tesla Full Self-Driving being available as a subscription. Note how it does not yet make the car autonomous.

Full Self-Driving: The ridiculous one-time cost and ownership

Generally, most Tesla cars, for sure all those of the model year 2020 and newer, are FSD-capable. A few older models require additional or newer hardware.

In other words, in most cases, the necessary hardware is already there — you already paid for it with the car. It’s just a matter of “unlocking” the feature via software, either at the time you buy the vehicle or, well, anytime you want.

The way it works, each car is tied to a Tesla account — via an included permanent cellular connection or Wi-Fi. The account dictates what you can do, in terms of features, with the vehicle based on the subscription level.

This account is also for you to manage the car remotely and for Tesla to send over-the-air software updates and handle diagnostics, support, maintenance, and services.

As a result, owning a Tesla means your car is always tied to the vendor, who will know how you use the car and where it is, among other things. Though that personal privacy risk is valid, it’s always nice to know that chances are your car can’t be stolen — in the sense that you always know where it is.

In my opinion, Tesla has been selling FSD by creating the fear of missing out (FOMO) in its customer. And it works.

The company continually makes the feature more expensive while promising that it will eventually work. The later you opt for it, the more expensive it gets. I have a few friends who bought into that.

Here’s the cost to add FSD to your car as I remember:

  • $3,000 in 2018.
  • $5,000 in early 2019.
  • $6,000 in May 2019.
  • $7,000 in November 2019. (If you preordered a Cybertruck when it was first announced, you’d remember this.)
  • $8,000 in June 2020.
  • $10,000 since October 2020.

My take is the price is going to be increased. (Rumored to be $14,000 or even more eventually.)

And here’s the kicker. Once you’ve bought it, the FSD stays with the particular vehicle — not the account. If you sell the car, the new owner will have it. If the car is totaled, it’s gone.

If you trade the car in, it makes no difference to Tesla since it can always turn FSD on (or off) anyway. The company sells most, if not all, of its used cars with this feature turned on — it’s free money for Tesla.

The point is you can’t transfer the fully-owned FSD from one car to another, and you can’t return it, either, despite the fact you buy an incomplete and virtual product. You buy a promise which might or might not be kept. Think about it.

Tesla Model Y Long Range Autopilot
The Tesla Model Y Long Range in Autopilot mode can cruise at up to 90 miles per hour. I generally do that at the speed limit for a long trip as long as the speed limit is higher than 70MPH.

My real-world Full Self-Driving trial: Mostly a joke

As all cars delivered in the last days of 2020, my 2021 Model Y came included with a few months of FSD trial, added within a week of delivery. And I hated it for the most part — the driving-related portion of it at least.

My friend who spent $10K on FSD with his Model S also has had similar feelings. OK, maybe he’s been trying to like it, as do most people who paid for Full Self-Driving outright.

Specifically, the Auto Navigation and Auto Lane Change, which by default are automatically engaged each time you turn on Autopilot, are more annoying than helpful.

When set at a speed higher than the general traffic, the car would try to pass or change lanes constantly and require your attention or confirmation each time it does. The actual passing or lane changing can be dramatic, too. You can’t just sit there and relax.

The Traffic Light Stop and Control worked, for the most part. Now and then, though, the car would stop or slow down significantly at green lights and hindered the traffic flow.

Auto Park was horrendous in my experience. The car took way too long to finish what I consider an easy parallel parking job and always parked too far from the curb.

Tesla App Summon
You can use the Tesla App to manage the car remotely, including summoning it to you with FSD.

The only feature I liked was Summon, which allows you to get the car in and out of a tight garage or remotely move it to fit perfectly in a parking space.

But Summon requires a flat surface, which is a rare commodity in my hilly San Francisco Bay Area, and even then, it’s far from reliable and sure isn’t cool enough to justify the cost.

(The Summon feature can make the car come to you, too, but only off-street and at a short distance. It worked in my trial, but it was just too slow and ostentatious. So I tried it a couple of times and never used that again — I’d rather save time and walk to the car than risk making a fool of myself in a crowded parking lot.)

Long story short, when the trial period ended and FSD was removed from my model Y via software, I felt such a relief. I no longer need to turn the feature off manually each time I engage Autopilot. And I’ve never missed it since.

But the trial did help. It saved me from the otherwise never-ending FOMO, and I’ve been delighted that I didn’t fall for FSD when buying the car. (I had mulled long and hard over the matter.)

Other Tesla drivers who bought FSD outright might not ever understand what I went through, though. Some might not even know they can have Autopilot without paying for FSD and how that’d be all they actually wanted.

Lots of room for improvement

In conclusion, Full Self-Driving, as to how we would interpret the name, has never worked. And chances are it will never work.

Up to now, the “Autosteer on city streets” portion has always been in “Coming soon” status. It’s available in some beta releases — currently, at version 9.x, but the build number will get higher eventually — and all have proven to have lots of room for improvement.

And we don’t know how it’s supposed to work precisely when (or if) it’s out of beta. When you buy it, you buy a promise without knowing what that promise actually entails. Considering how bad it is now, I have a hard time believing Tesla cars will ever truly drive themselves.

To put things in numbers, “Autonomous” means the car has to be able to handle everything from point A to point B 100% by itself, which is a huge step-up from 99%, and currently, FSD is at best not even at 70% yet in my experience. It’s highly likely that current Tesla cars never will be fully autonomous.

Driving automation: It’s all about the nuance

So, like “Auto” in “Autopilot,” the “Full” notion in “Full Self-Driving” might end up being a lie, as it sure has been for those who bought the feature years ago — they likely will need a new (Tesla) car before this feature is ever “fully” available.

The only real thing about FSD is the money you spent on it.

Tesla Model Y Long Range
The Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. We got here using Autopilot primarily.

Full Self-Driving subscription: A sensible alternative

And that’s why what happened on July 16, 2021, was significant. Since then, FSD has been available via a $199/month subscription. It’s a feature that you can turn on or off yourself.

It makes total sense since FSD has always been a subscription anyway. You don’t get any extra hardware with it, and there’s nothing tangible about it. You pay for the privilege of using it, just like Netflix or Spotify.

That said, if you subscribe to this feature and keep using it at all times, it’d take more than four years to make it cost $10,000. But during this time, you can always turn it off (and not pay for it) when you don’t need it or don’t drive.

Or you can try it for a month and then wait until when it’s really ready to add it again — there’s still the option to buy it outright — or entirely skip it, like in my case, because you realize it’s just not necessary.

Now, that might make existing FSD owners feel a bit like accidental fools financially, ain’t it? (Clearly, they had no choice.)

But some of them don’t care because, well, they love FSD. Either the extra cash is not a big deal for them, or they don’t know the difference — they’ve always had FSD.

The takeaway

Tesla has a lot of fans. I count myself as one. Seriously, I love my Model Y (as much as I can “love” a car), and so do my kids.

But the car is not perfect, and the FSD notion is one of the things that drive Tesla cars further toward imperfection. It sets the expectations too high. Some like it because they have invested heavily in it, or they are just fanboys. Others keep the resentments inside.

That said, it’s significant that this feature is no longer cost-prohibitive and less of a “scam,” for lack of a better word. Since the debut of the subscription model, I’ve met some who have tried it and found it “interesting.” Others were annoyed with it and canceled almost immediately.

But ultimately, the more folks try it, the better. Their inputs will put pressure on Tesla to either make FSD real or change the approach to self-driving.

Who knows, Tesla might eventually abandon the idea of autonomous vehicles completely — at least for its existing fleet — and make the current “Full Self-Driving” nonsense part of the standard Autopilot.

Wishful thinking aside, for once, that’d put “Auto” closer to where it belongs.

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10 thoughts on “Tesla Full Self-Driving Explained: A $199/month (Almost) Empty Promise”

  1. automatic pilot:
    Aeronautics. Also called automatic, autopilot, gyropilot, robot. an airborne electronic control system that automatically maintains a preset heading and attitude. The simple days of β€œASL” are long gone.

    https://www.bing.com/search?q=define+automatic+pilot

    Autopilot
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    An autopilot is a system used to control the path of an aircraft, marine craft or spacecraft without requiring constant manual control by a human operator. Autopilots do not replace human operators. Instead, the autopilot assists the operator’s control of the vehicle, allowing the operator to focus on broader aspects of operations (for example, monitoring the trajectory, weather and on-board systems).[1]

    When present, an autopilot is often used in conjunction with an autothrottle, a system for controlling the power delivered by the engines.

    An autopilot system is sometimes colloquially referred to as “George”[2] (e.g. “we’ll let George fly for a while”). The etymology of the nickname is unclear: some claim it is a reference to inventor George De Beeson, who patented an autopilot in the 1930s, while others claim that Royal Air Force pilots coined the term during World War II to symbolize that their aircraft technically belonged to King George VI.[3]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autopilot

    Tesla’s autopilot is named properly.

    Reply
      • Jonathan. Please…

        I know you’re joking (at least I hope) but the word “Autopilot” is defined as I presented. It does not mean human oversight is not required. People misunderstand what an “Autopilot” is.

        Tesla named their system appropriately.

        Reply
        • Sorry about the typo, Jonathan. I hate it when people butcher my name, too.

          Since you seem so serious:

          “Autopilot” is misleading at best and completely wrong at worst.

          For one, per what you presented, it does not apply to cars — we don’t call a driver a “captain.” For two, it doesn’t work the way it does on an airplane, where it can fly the aircraft for hours unattended. In fact, if you expect to work that way — and we don’t know what to expect since again it’s not applicable — you could kill yourself. Some did. For three, this post is mainly about the Full-Self-Driving feature, which has been a lie, as I mentioned in the post.

          There’s nothing appropriate or inappropriate about naming anything. You can name your dog “cat,” and that’s fine — Elon named his youngest child, per his words, after “a cat running across the keyboard,” and no one can have any say about that.

          The point is you can name anything whatever you want. But when naming something with the intention to fool others, then it’s a lie. Tesla has been bragging about its cars “driving by themselves” from the get-go. And “Autopilot” and “FSD” are part of that largely false narrative.

          Reply
  2. Great article. We’re a 72 yo couple that make about four 1000 mile round trips a year Indiana to Colorado – 99% interstate. We hate the drive and are considering a Y with FSD on a monthly subscription. With FSD on the interstate, could we actually relax?
    Thanks!

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the insightful post!

    They used to have a level in between Autopilot and FSD, “Enhanced” Autopilot. Does the now-standard “basic” Autopilot that comes with all Teslas include all of the features you mention below, or do you have EAP?

    “It’s basically an intelligent cruise control that can automatically manage your car’s speed (based on the traffic), steering, and braking.”

    Reply
    • Yes, EAP was made part of FSD a year or so ago. Now we have Autopilot and then FSD as an option. In any case, the former is all you need, and it’s excellent. As mentioned in the post, I really hate FSD as a driving feature.

      Reply

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