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Tesla fans struggle to get loved ones on board with ‘full self-driving’

By Matt McFarland, CNN Business

Frugal Tesla Guy, a YouTube personality focused on Tesla, gives his passengers a speech to prepare them before he turns on “full self-driving.”

“I need you to understand that I have complete and total control. I’m behind the wheel. I have access to the brake, the accelerator and the steering wheel. Anytime it does something that I don’t feel is safe, I will take control of the car,” he says.

But the reassurances haven’t eased his wife’s concerns. She says the technology is often jarring and anxiety-inducing.

“If I’m reading, that’s when I’m like, ‘Oh good grief,'” Sadie Krueger told CNN Business. “It would be jerky or swerve just out of the blue. You’re like, ‘Whoa, are you drunk?'”

Krueger says she loves their Tesla Model 3, but she feels that “full self-driving” drives closer to large trucks than most drivers, and sometimes steers into the wrong lane. The technology drives like a “grandpa” in some cases, irritating nearby drivers, she says, but other times can be aggressive.

Tesla enthusiasts with the unfinished, test version of “full self-driving,” currently a driver-assist system akin to an enhanced cruise control, are finding that family and friends like Krueger don’t always share their enthusiasm. The technology promises to one day drive passengers to their destinations without human intervention. Many tell CNN Business that they use the software less when driving with other people, including their romantic partners.

Passengers sometimes object to what they describe as the jerky driving style of “full self-driving” and have asked the Tesla fans not to use “full self-driving” while they’re in the vehicle. Some Tesla owners are preemptively deciding to not turn on “full self-driving” so that passengers get a smoother ride.

Krueger said she humors her husband, as he gets a kick out of testing the software near their California home. His YouTube channel has more than 42,000 subscribers who watch his videos on Tesla. But she draws a line, too, and has asked him not to use it when she rides with him in cities or where he knows it is likely to be jerky.

But plenty of passengers, especially younger ones like Krueger’s teenage son, and tech junkies, are excited by the nascent technology, and savor the experience, flaws and all.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said every year from 2015 to 2022 that self-driving Teslas were probably a year or two away. He’s said that lives will be transformed with safer roads and affordable transportation. Musk has described Teslas as “appreciating assets” that should be worth as much as $200,000, and claims they could someday bring in up to $30,000 in gross profit as robotaxis in the automaker’s proposed future ridehail network.

In Musk’s pitch, robotaxis would operate like Uber or Lyft vehicles that could be summoned via a Tesla smartphone app. There would be no human driver behind the wheel. There might not even be a steering wheel or pedals in the vehicle. Some Tesla enthusiasts have purchased their vehicles with plans to use them as robotaxis in the future.

But before Tesla’s technology can change the world, it will first have to work, and then it will have to win over fans’ loved ones. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment about the reactions of family and friends of its beta testers.

Tesla takes the wheel

Tesla first released an early version of “full self-driving” to a small group in October 2021. “Full self-driving” isn’t really “self-driving” in the eyes of regulators and autonomous vehicle experts. It’s more like an enhanced cruise control that steers, accelerates and navigates intersections, but it needs an attentive human driver behind the wheel who can take control at any moment because of the system’s shortcomings.

Drivers reported being both amazed and alarmed by the system, which sometimes shines, and in other cases makes seemingly dangerous decisions.

Tesla owner Justin Demaree says he tries to use “full self-driving” as much as possible. He views it as historically significant work. Tesla cars with “full self-driving” send driving data back to the automaker, which uses it to refine the software.

Demaree imagines a day when people may not even fly anymore because self-driving software gets so good.

“It will change everything,” Demaree said. “If you don’t have to pay attention, you don’t have to do anything, you can spend that time with family or doing other things that are more productive or add more value.”

But Demaree must reckon with the difference between the promised future and the current reality when his family gets in the car. He only uses “full self-driving” about half the time that he drives with his wife Heather.

“If it’s being temperamental, she doesn’t have to ask anymore,” Demarre said. “I just turn it off.”

Walt Corey, 70, hopes he’ll never have to turn off the “full self-driving” software while driving alone or with his wife, Nancy. He bought a Tesla in hopes of ensuring their mobility and independence as they age.

He says she gets annoyed with the loud alarm that sounds to alert drivers when they need to immediately take control of the car because it can’t handle a situation.

“It’s really obnoxious,” Corey said, explaining that the noise bothers him as well. “Let me know if I’m about to drive off the cliff or hit somebody, but don’t do it because the software gets confused.”

Worth the trouble?

Jeff Goin, a pilot and self-described “techno-geek,” bought a Tesla in part because he felt that Autopilot, its driver-assist technology that is more rudimentary than “full self-driving,” would make him feel less fatigued after long drives. Tesla owners generally say that using Autopilot’s auto-steering function on divided highways leaves them less drained after hours on the road.

But Goin doesn’t use “full self-driving.” He tried the software and felt he was having to pay even more attention when using it.

Goin’s partner Tim uses “full self-driving” regularly. “Hang on,” Goin says he jokes to friends riding with them when Tim turns on “full self-driving.”

When the couple rides by themselves, Tim uses “full self-driving” less. Goin said he sometimes works in the car, so he doesn’t like the distraction of being jostled. Even so, Goin says he’s at times impressed with “full self-driving.”

“Sometimes you get in there and you think it’s come a long way. And then it stops on the railroad tracks,” Goin said, describing a recent incident in which he says his Tesla’s “full self-driving” sensed a stop sign down the road and chose to stop earlier than advisable, briefly stopping on railroad tracks.

Goin, who said he “immensely” admires CEO Elon Musk, is skeptical of how soon self-driving vehicles will be a reality.

“There’s time on the regular scale, minutes on a regular scale and then there are Musk minutes,” Goin said.

Though Musk has never wavered in his promise that self-driving Teslas are just around the corner, the challenge of building a fully autonomous vehicle has proven harder than those developing them expected.

Building a robotaxi that drives safely isn’t enough, either. Robotaxis will have to operate smoothly enough to make passengers like Goin comfortable. Many of them are unlikely to accept as many flaws as early adopters of technology.

John Gibbs, a Georgia professor who says he’s long tested beta software, is “used to seeing things break and behave weirdly and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, I wonder what caused that,?'” he said. “But there are people whose personality types are much less that. They just want something to work.”

One of them is Gibbs’s wife, Lane, he said, who doesn’t like it when full self-driving is jerky in turns. He uses “full self-driving” with her on straightaways, but he turns it off at intersections where the car must turn.

“For her comfort and sanity, I’ve just learned it’s not worth having her go, ‘Why are you doing this?'” he said.

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