It’s Not Just Tesla Autopilot—Everything Is in Beta

The difference between “in beta” and “final release” has long been a semantic one—but here’s why Musk’s embrace of the term matters for the auto industry.

byAlex Roy|
It’s Not Just Tesla Autopilot—Everything Is in Beta

I remember my first real girlfriend. We were eleven; promises were made. My first car? I was going to keep it forever. My parents were together, until they weren't. I remember the first girl I wanted to marry. And the third. I remember my father’s voice from the next room. Then on an answering machine, which stopped working, then on a voicemail, which I lost when I switched to T-Mobile. Then, only in my memory.

Nothing is static. The world, with all of us in it, is in a constant state of change. Everything is in beta, and anyone who says otherwise is selling you something.

Love or hate Elon Musk, his greatest societal contribution isn’t "Premium Electric Vehicles" or reusable rockets. It might just be his use of language—specifically that phrase, "in beta." Did you think that term means "not ready," "incomplete," or "needs testing"? It can, and it does, but now, it also means something else: In the world of automotive technology, especially autonomy, "in beta" now means: "We have to move faster."

The term has a negative connotation, but it's not an inherently bad thing, or a good one for that matter. It's just the nature of evolution, and evolution is the reality. Your career, you health, your pant size, your marriage—all of it is, essentially, "in beta." Embrace change, and every change becomes an opportunity for improvement. Deny it, and disappointment follows.

In fact, if you accept that everything is in beta, then it's the concept of "final release" that's really a lie.

Every car ever made, with the possible exception of a 1997 Lexus GS400 and any Toyota Hilux, was and is "in beta." Don’t think so? How many cars have you owned with zero defects? Or, try this game: Go to the National Transportation Highway & Safety Administration’s recall page and enter any car, from any year. You won’t like what you find.

More to the point, take any wonky infotainment system to ever debut. Do you think Cadillac engineers and software developers tossed the CUE system into the XTS in 2012 and said, "Our work here is done"? Of course not. They continued to test the system, listened to the customer feedback, and learned how to make improvements. Cadillac CUE was, and continues to be, under testing. The difference is a semantic one: "final release" has always meant, "ready to go public," after which time the system receives "updates."

Elon Musk's approach is as much a philosophical tweak as a semantic one. In the uncharted territories of autonomous driving, he introduced a system that he felt was safe for public use, if used correctly (i.e. final release), but also one that would benefit from, and receives, real-time upgrades from real-time use—something that sounds very much like, and is in fact hung with the tag, "in beta."

The genius here—and the risk—is to leapfrog the stodgy, risk-averse OEM mentality and basically admit that autonomous capabilities can never be "final release"-ready (for lack of a better term) without the scope and scale of real-world testing and refinement through something like Tesla's Fleet Learning . . . which by definition makes it not a "final release." Musk is admitting that Tesla Autopilot will always be in beta—and so will everyone else's system, even if they're holding on to the old, analog thinking of "beta testing-final release-upgrade-new model." This is the essential friction of Musk treating a car as a piece of rolling hardware in a world of OEMs desperate to develop and own their own version of cutting-edge technology, jammed into the legacy notion of "a car"—along with the restraint, borne of politics and lawyers, that thinking engenders.

There are those for whom the idea of technology in "final release" lends a feeling of comfort and completion, but if there's one thing I don't want to live with it's a misguided notion of "safest right now." The old software model can make us wait through a years-long lifecycle to get the newest and best in our cars—or even need to buy a new vehicle altogether—but Autopilot, flaws and all, is always the safest, best version of itself right now. And that means every right now—today's right now, tomorrow's right now, and right now six months from, well, right now.

Autopilot is in beta, and so is everything else. And that’s a good thing.

Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.