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Tesla “California Stop” recall reveals a central problem with Full Self-Driving

Tesla has issued a recall of a selection of its vehicles due to a software update. The change comes as CEO Elon Musk touts the future of Full Self-Driving.

Alexander Lyakhovskiy/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

Tesla is recalling 53,822 electric cars due to an issue with its semi-autonomous driving software.

On Tuesday, documents shared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that the automaker will recall select cars operating firmware update 2020.40.4.10 or newer. The recall was issued due to a software feature where the car would perform a “rolling stop” at an all-way stop intersection.

The issue, fixed in a subsequent software update, demonstrates some of the questions that may arise around autonomous driving. Writer Tim Urban compared completely stopping at an intersection with a stop sign as “like my grandmother.” The move is sometimes referred to as a “California roll.”

But despite the slang term, cars must come to a full stop at a stop sign according to California law. While it could help traffic move faster, the law is the law.

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Tesla is recalling thousands of cars in response.picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images

Tesla recall: What it’s about

Tesla sells a feature it dubs “Full Self-Driving.” This enables the car to drive semi-autonomously with human oversight. CEO Elon Musk has outlined his goal to expand the feature to one day support fully autonomous driving.

The recall notice explains that, in certain situations, the car would come to a rolling stop instead of a complete stop. The conditions were:

  • The feature switched on in the Full Self-Driving settings page
  • The car travels below 5.6 mph
  • No “relevant moving cars” or pedestrians or cyclists are detected around the intersection
  • There is enough visibility for the car
  • The roads coming into the intersection have a speed limit of 30 mph or below

If it met these conditions, the car could continue moving at speeds of between 0.1 mph and 5.6 mph.

Tesla first introduced the rolling stop feature with a software update in October 2020. The company met with the NHTSA to discuss the feature twice in January, before the company decided to remove the feature on January 20 with software update 2021.44.30.15.

The update will start reaching vehicles in early February 2022. Customers that upgrade their car to the latest software update don’t need to take any further action.

It’s important to note that the company was not aware of any collisions or injuries that occurred through this fault.

On his Twitter page, Musk criticized a reporter in response to their story about the recall. The Associated Press reported on the story with the headline “Tesla recall: ‘Full Self-Driving’ software runs stop signs.” Musk dismissed Tom Krisher as “actually a lobbyist, not a journalist” and claimed he had “no integrity.”

“Indeed, there were no safety issues,” Musk wrote. “The car simply slowed to ~2 mph & continued forward if clear view with no cars or pedestrians.”

Musk did not provide any evidence for his assertion that Krisher is a lobbyist. In response, the AP’s global director of media communications Lauren Easton wrote that “AP stands by his reporting.”

As Tesla plans to take over more driving features through autonomy, expect further questions to emerge. Should a car drive like a human — flaws and all — or drive according to the letter of the law?

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