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\During Tesla’s quarterly earnings call in October, CEO Elon Musk reiterated a striking projection: the company is on the verge of releasing its long-promised Full Self-Driving package.

“While it’s going to be tight,” Musk said, “It still does appear that we will be . . . in early access release of a feature-complete Full Self-Driving feature this year.”

Tesla has not clarified what an “early access” release would entail, and the electric carmaker is notorious for flexible timelines. But the end-of-year goal has held steady since at least February—and with the end of 2019 fast approaching, that would mean at least some Tesla owners could get Full Self-Driving within a matter of weeks.

Any release of Full Self-Driving (FSD) this year would be a massive public relations coup, giving Tesla at least some claim to be the winner of the decade-plus race to create a self-driving car. As a sizable bonus, the company says it would also allow nearly $500 million in revenue from pre-orders of the self-driving features, held off the books for years, to be recognized in quarterly earnings statements. This has the potential to transform Tesla’s near-term financial outlook.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story. But it has admitted that cars will not be fully autonomous when Full Self-Driving is released. “There’s the car being able to be autonomous, but requiring supervision and intervention at times. That’s feature complete,” Musk said on the October earnings call. “And it doesn’t mean like every scenario, everywhere on earth, including every corner case, it just means most of the time.”

There is ample evidence, however, that Tesla drivers routinely use existing features such as Autopilot without following the company’s guidelines for driver supervision. And the kind of scenarios Musk says FSD won’t be able to handle on release have already led to accidents of varying severity for users of other autonomous features.

Under these circumstances, the imminent release of FSD suggests at least the shadow of a conflict of interest, with Tesla’s bottom line and stock price in the balance against public safety.

The gold at the end of the self-driving rainbow

The half-billion dollars in deferred revenue from Full Self-Driving came from Tesla buyers who have pre-ordered the feature since 2016 for a surcharge of as much as $7,000. Customers who bought the feature got an onboard computer and all the hardware required for the car to drive itself—but without the software, which remains in development. When the software is declared complete, properly equipped Teslas will receive it via an over-the-air software update to those pre-installed hardware units. Tesla has not yet said whether it will roll it out to all drivers at once, or test it with smaller subsets.

Roughly half a billion dollars in presales would then be recognized as revenue, which Tesla said in June it would do over 12 months. A further portion of deferred FSD revenue, previously stated by the company as $316 million, would be recognized over the 8 year lifespan of each vehicle.

The $500 million referenced in October, spread evenly over the next four quarters, would add roughly $125 million per quarter to the bottom line. Though Tesla’s balance sheet shows big changes from quarter to quarter, some sense of the impact can be gained from looking at prior quarters. Adding $125 million in revenue to Q3 2019 results, for instance, would have increased operating profit by nearly 50%. Adding it to Q2 2019 would have cut operating losses by 74%. And because Tesla is considered a growth company, those changes could have an exaggerated impact on analyst’s projections of the company’s future growth.

“Feature complete” vs. completely functional

To be sure, Tesla has previously been aggressive about releasing features in semi-functional “beta” form, and the company is already warning that FSD will need further refinement after release.

On the October call, Musk specifically said FSD may not be prepared to deal with “corner cases” on release, making driver intervention necessary. These cases—better known as “edge cases”—include the truly unpredictable events common on mid-speed surface streets, from construction changing the flow of traffic, to large objects in the road, to pedestrians and cyclists.

“Edge cases” may have already misled existing Tesla autonomy features, such as the Autopilot feature for highways. One particular edge case, semi trucks turning across oncoming highway traffic, has allegedly contributed to two fatal accidents.

“Edge cases” are the main reason most manufacturers have slowed down the rollout of autonomous vehicles, leading expectations across the auto industry to slow sharply over the last year. Legacy carmakers like Ford and GM have moved away from any clear timeline for the retail sale of self-driving vehicles. Uber suspended its autonomous vehicle research last year after one of its vehicles killed a pedestrian. Waymo has released autonomous taxis, but only in one city, Phoenix, noted for its light traffic and good weather—that is, conditions where edge cases are at a minimum.

Tesla, by contrast, is aiming to release Full Self-Driving for owners worldwide, to potentially be used under a vast array of circumstances. But it is explicitly not guaranteeing that the technology will work under all circumstances on release.

Tesla’s language on that point may be misleading to the layperson. When Musk describes the coming FSD release as “feature-complete,” he’s referring to a list of discrete capabilities, including those already released—highway Autopilot, self-park, and, most recently, the parking lot feature Smart Summon. The additional features still needed to reach “feature complete” status primarily involve mid-speed city driving, such as recognizing stop signs and traffic lights. Musk described this part of the package in October as connecting the highway and parking lot features already released.

But ticking all those feature boxes—features which Tesla has defined for itself—is not the same as guaranteeing that Tesla owners can safely read the newspaper while their car takes them to the grocery store. In October, Musk said that “By feature complete I mean the car is able to drive from one’s house to work, most likely without intervention.”

That “most likely” caveat speaks volumes. As it has with Autopilot, Tesla will continue to officially require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and monitor their vehicle to help the FSD system deal with unexpected edge cases.

This was foreshadowed in Tesla’s September 26 release of Smart Summon, a feature in the Full Self-Driving suite that’s designed to let a car pick up its driver in parking lots. The feature immediately ran into minor trouble, including some frightening and property-damaging mishaps documented on YouTube. The feature seemed particularly flummoxed by other cars and pedestrians. Consumer Reports described the feature as “glitchy” and “without a lot of obvious benefits for consumers.”

Yet Tesla added $30 million in self-driving revenue to its Q3 revenue on the basis of the Smart Summon release, making a small contribution to the company’s surprising third-quarter profit.

Failing before they succeed

Tesla leadership and supporters, though, have said that releasing software like Smart Summon with rough edges is part of the path to creating an autonomous vehicle that actually works. The most extreme expression of this mindset may have been Musk’s statements in 2016 that media highlighting the present-day risk of crashes involving self-driving technology would actually cost future lives:

“If, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using autonomous vehicles, you’re killing people,” the CEO said.

This stance is justified by the fact that, as with all forms of machine learning, autonomous driving algorithms depend on massive amounts of example data. Tesla’s aggressive approach, with all the risk it entails, has given the company a major edge in data gathering.

Teslas on the road today gather data about decisions made by their drivers, and test their autonomy systems in so-called “shadow mode”—recording the systems’ decisions for further review, without ever giving over control of the car. With a fleet of nearly 800,000 autopilot-equipped cars on the road, Tesla has recorded data from, by one analyst’s estimate, 1.8 billion miles of driving. Waymo has far more actual autonomous miles driven than Tesla or any other competitor, but Tesla appears to have more raw real-world data about driving conditions to work with.

With Full Self Driving actually available to owners, Tesla could quickly surpass Waymo’s tally of real-world autonomous miles driven, if it counts miles with a driver present but not intervening. Musk said in October that after its initial release, Full Self Driving would steadily improve to the point that “from a Tesla standpoint, we think the car is safe enough to be driven without supervision.” Presumably, those improvements will be partly enabled by additional data gathered with FSD active in the real world, though Tesla did not reply to clarifying questions on the topic.

Tesla has significant discretion both on technological and financial decisions related to Full Self-Driving. According to the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, there are currently no federal performance standards or other regulations for advanced driver assistance technologies like FSD, or for fully-autonomous vehicles. So Tesla alone decides when FSD is ready for release. Tesla did not reply to inquiries from Fortune regarding its internal metrics for deciding when FSD will be safe for public use.

The decision of when to recognize held-back revenue is also made by Tesla, in collaboration with its accounting partners. This situation is not unique. “Lots of companies struggle with this very sticky question of what you can recognize as revenue.” says Joe Osha, a Tesla analyst with JMP Securities.

The key question, then, may be simply how much the public trusts Elon Musk and his company to decide when the technology is not a public safety risk, and to remove any financial considerations from that decision.

Jason K. Levine, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, does not believe that trust is warranted. “Based on Tesla’s cavalier attitude up until now when it comes to quality control, the safety of their [systems], or educating consumers regarding the limitations of their technology,” he says, “There is nothing that should lead anyone to believe ‘entirely safe fully self-driving’ vehicle software is being released by Tesla anytime soon. All car manufacturers have a conflict of interest when it comes to putting safety before revenue. Most aren’t quite as publicly obvious about which one they are choosing as Tesla has been.”

Other observers believe Tesla has pure motives for the aggressive FSD timetable. “To be honest, that is less about the financials than it is just their desire to push the envelope in terms of the technology,” says Osha. “I agree with criticisms that they get out over their skis sometimes. But I don’t think that’s motivated by desire to move the gross margin. It’s their DNA.”

And despite cautious notes from Tesla itself, some who have experienced FSD in its current state are already impressed. Matt Joyce, a generally bullish independent Tesla analyst, got a sneak peek of Tesla’s autonomous city driving, and reports that it already works, though not flawlessly. “It was raw, but still super, super impressive. It literally went 15 minutes driving itself,” he said, through a variety of complex, real-world driving tasks on the streets of Fremont.

Even Joyce, though, isn’t confident Tesla will meet its nominal end-of-year target. “I think they are going to surprise people. It’s just not going to be on Elon’s timeline.”

Will Musk apply the brakes or speed ahead? With the end of 2019 rapidly approaching, investors and drivers alike are surely eager to find out.




各大汽车厂商在无人驾驶领域已经竞争了十几年了,到目前为止,还没有人能够实现真正意义上的全自动无人驾驶(Full Self-Driving,以下简称为FSD)。如果特斯拉在今年确实如约发布了全自动驾驶套件,这将是公关上的一场巨大胜利,至少让特斯拉在名义上成为了无人驾驶领域的赢家。特斯拉表示,作为奖励,该公司将从这几年未入账的预付款中拿出5亿美元计入季度收益项,这至少将在短期内改变特斯拉的财务状况。














对于外行来说,特斯拉在这个问题上的语言可能存在一定的误导性。马斯克在描述该公司即将发布的FSD功能时使用了“功能完整”这个词,他在这里指的是一系列独立的功能的集合,包括那些此前已经发布的功能——如高速公路自动驾驶、自动驻车,以及最近发布的“Smart Summon”停车场自动召唤功能等等。而要达到“功能完整”状态,首先需要解决的是中等车速下的市内道路驾驶问题,比如识别停车标志和红绿灯等。马斯克在10月表示,这部分功能将把已经发布的“高速公路自动驾驶”和“停车场自动驻车”功能连接起来。



FSD究竟有多靠谱?这一点从特斯拉9月26日发布的Smart Summon智能召唤功能中可见端倪。Smart Summon也是特斯拉的FSD套件的一部分,它可以将车辆从停车场中自动“召唤”至车主面前。不过该功能一经发布便遇到了不少的小麻烦,比如一些吓人的小事故和财产损失等,YouTube上就有不少相关视频。而它“鬼车”般的骚操作也吓坏了不少行人和其他车辆。《消费者报告》(Consumer Reports)认为这是一项“有缺陷”的功能,而且“对消费者并没有太多明显的好处”。

然而随着Smart Summon功能的发布,特斯拉又在其第三季度营收中计入了3000万美元的无人驾驶收入,为该公司令人惊讶的第三季度利润做了不大不小的贡献。


不过,特斯拉的领导层和支持者都认为,像Smart Summon这样的软件虽然存在一定瑕疵,却是在打造真正意义上的无人驾驶汽车的过程中不可或缺的一步。关于这一点,最极端的言论当属马斯克在2016年一段话,他认为,媒体一味夸大无人驾驶技术的撞车风险,这样做的代价,是会使很多人将来失去生命。





在FSD功能的有关技术和财务问题上,特斯拉是有很大的自由裁量权的。据非营利组织汽车安全中心(Center for Auto Safety)介绍,美国在联邦层面对于全自动无人驾驶或FSD这种高级驾驶辅助技术尚无统一的性能标准,也没有可以参考的规定。所以特斯拉可以自己决定什么时候发布FSD。关于特斯拉就FSD何时可供公众安全使用有无内部标准,特斯拉并未回复《财富》杂志的询问。

至于何时将递延收入计入营收,这个决定也是由特斯拉与它的会计伙伴共同做出的。这种情况也不鲜见。JMP Securities公司的特斯拉问题分析师乔·奥沙表示:“很多公司都在为一个非常棘手的问题感到头疼,那就是你能够把哪些东西计入收益。”










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