Just a few days ago, Tesla announced their new Version 10 software update, which included such things as the ability to play Cuphead and watch Netflix while in park, as well as their new Smart Summon feature, which frees humanity from the brutal indignity of short walks to their cars in parking lots. As you can imagine, people have been trying out the Smart Summon feature eagerly, leading to Twitter posts of people discovering that maybe, just maybe, it’s not exactly perfect.
Smart Summon is pretty dramatic. It allows an owner to call, from some distance (line of sight only, though, and be ready to stop the 4,000 pound machine you’re having drive through public areas) right to you, so your lazy ass doesn’t need to walk to the car.
Now, I freely admit that Smart Summon does seem pretty cool, and it’s by no means an insignificant achievement—it’s a very limited form of autonomous driving as the car drives itself to the owner, and that’s a big deal. I also think that Tesla has underestimated the chaos of real-world parking lots and overestimated their technology, neither of which surprise me.
Part of the reason I’m not so shocked is that in Tesla’s own introductory video for the feature, they showed this:
It’s impressive, though, even if the video does show something pretty questionable:
Yeah, it looks like that car was summoned, and to get to the driver it’s driving what appears to be the wrong way down that parking lot lane. You can see all the cars parked at the opposite angle, and that lane is narrow enough that it’s almost certainly one way, and not the way the Tesla is driving.
It actually seems to be okay, as this Tweet explains:
Now, even if that road is actually two-way, this does reveal that the Smart Summon algorithm isn’t looking at things that human drivers would notice, like the fact that they appear to be driving the wrong way down a lane. Maybe Smart Summon knew this? Maybe I should cut it some slack?
Maybe. But then I started noticing Tweets like these:
In this one, an accident was narrowly avoided, and even if, yes, the person backing out does not have the right-of-way, I’m pretty certain a human driver would have noticed the reverse lamps on (watch second video) and noticed the Lexus backing up, and stopped, because in parking lots this kind of thing happens all the time, and just because you have the right-of-way, it doesn’t mean you just barrel on through. I don’t think a (relatively alert) human would have a problem here.
Also uncomfortable is the Tesla owner’s admission that the “Other party thinks that I was actually driving because I ran to my car before he got out.” That raises all kinds of issues, not the least of which is the question of whether or not it’s actually legal to send off a 4,000 pound machine in a public parking lot?
If you had a 12-foot long 4,000 pound R/C car and you wanted to drive it (slowly, of course) in a public parking lot, do you think anyone would maybe have a problem with that? If so, how is this all that different?
There’s more of these, like this guy, who was just using Smart Summon in his own empty driveway:
Again, impressive tech, but I can get any 15 year old with a learner’s permit to ram a car into the side of a garage for a lot less money. I mean, it’s cool advanced AI can now drive into the side of a garage, I guess.
Here’s another one:
In this case, the Tesla would not have the right-of-way, and while Tesla-supporting commenters have been complaining about the white SUV’s speed, any reasonable human driver would have stopped at that point and looked to see if anyone was coming, which it does not appear that the Tesla did.
Smart Summon can be stopped at any point by the owner removing their finger from a button on the phone app, at which point the car stops immediately. I guess that could also mean a Tesla can end up stopped and blocking parking lot traffic if someone drops their phone or the battery dies or some other phone-related issues, but it’s better than the car just going regardless.
The Version 10 release notes for Smart Summon do state that
“You are still responsible for your car and must monitor it and its surroundings at all times.”
which is, of course, true, but this is still a completely unprecedented use of a car, for better or worse. On the plus side, sure, it’s great for impressing people and not getting wet in the rain or having to walk to your car, possibly with a bunch of heavy crap, but at the same time, when has it ever been okay to attempt to be “in control” of your car from potentially across a parking lot?
There’s plenty of cases where Smart Summon has worked just fine. And yes, people do stupid shit in parking lots every day. Tesla does specify that it’s a Beta release, which is fine for most software, but does it make sense when that software is driving a full-sized car in a public space?
This is a tricky one. I’m pretty sure we’ll see more Smart Summon issues and fender-benders because the world is messy and confusing. I reached out to Tesla for comment, and will update when I hear something.