Tesla risks $2.7 billion loss on autonomous tech gamble


Approximately 350,000 customers have paid upfront for a ‘Full Self-Driving’ feature that still does not exist beyond a beta testing phase.


Tesla stands to lose approximately $US2.7 billion ($AU3.7B) in refunds if it can’t deliver on its promise of retrofitted autonomous capabilities, analysis by Drive suggests.

In 2016 the California-based electric vehicle giant launched its optional ‘Full Self-Driving’ (FSD) package, guaranteeing buyers their vehicle would be updated to pilot itself when the required technology became safe and legal. That is yet to happen, despite Tesla continuing to charge new customers approximately $US10,000 for the feature (a recent beta version was recently rolled out is some regions, however CEO Elon Musk describes it as “not very good”).

According to experts, the company faces significant hurdles rolling out the system ‘over-the-air’ as promised. While almost every other contemporary developer of autonomous technology has invested heavily in lidar laser systems to identify obstacles and measure distances, Tesla has been forced to stick with the camera-based hardware in its existing vehicles.

“I really don’t think the current camera-based Tesla system is viable,” Toby Walsh, an autonomous driving expert and professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, told Drive. “I don’t think it’s safe to continue to try and do it without the benefits of lidar … The cost of this may be a factor, but the bigger cost is human lives.

“There’re a lot of things that Musk says that he probably quietly regrets, or at least the company regrets … They sold it claiming it would give autonomous driving, so if I had bought a Tesla and paid those sums for that then I’d want my money back now.”

Drive Car of the Year Best Electric Vehicle 2021 finalist Tesla Model 3 front exterior view

Research released overnight by TroyTeslike – based on a survey of 17,726 former and current Tesla owners – suggests approximately 11 per cent of buyers currently fork out for the ‘Full Self-Driving’ package, down from a high of 46 per cent in the second quarter of 2019 (April to June inclusive).

Therefore, of the 1.6 million Tesla vehicles reportedly delivered worldwide since the second half of 2016, it can be extrapolated that approximately 353,000 were optioned with ‘full self-driving.’ Depending on the year and country of purchase, buyers paid between $3500 and $10,100 for the feature.

Taking into account the total number of deliveries year on year, approximate percentage of uptake, and incremental price increases of the ‘FSD’ package, Drive estimates the company could potentially be liable for $US2.7 billion ($AU3.7B) in refunds. While that is a rough approximation, it demonstrates Tesla’s significant financial stake in delivering on its autonomous promises.

A Tesla spokesperson chose not to comment on the report, however a representative for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) previously told Drive: “Under Australian Consumer Law, businesses are not allowed to make statements that are incorrect or likely to create a false impression – this applies to performance characteristics of products, including cars. [However,] we do not comment on specific complaints or possible investigations.”

Despite the controversy, Tesla maintains it is on track to safely and successfully deliver autonomous cars. It recently rolled out its Beta 9 FSD update, with further iterations of the software on the way, improving on the current version 9.2 system claimed by CEO Elon Musk to be “not great”.

William Davis has written for Drive since July 2020, covering news and current affairs in the automotive industry.

He has maintained a primary focus on industry trends, autonomous technology, electric vehicle regulations, and local environmental policy.

As the newest addition to the Drive team, William was brought onboard for his attention to detail, writing skills, and strong work ethic.

Despite writing for a diverse range of outlets – including the Australian Financial Review, Robb Report, and Property Observer – since completing his media degree at Macquarie University, William has always had a passion for cars.

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