A is for Apple. B is for Beta. C is for Car.

Full disclosure: We have a sibling site devoted to all things Tesla. Some of my colleagues here either own or have placed a $1,000 reservation for a car sight unseen. Tesla is hot. It's CEO is hot. I do, however, have some cause for concern.

Recently we've seen reports of at least two crashes attributable to Tesla's "autopilot" or "autonomous" feature. Tesla says the feature is in beta. Beta software has a clear definition. Or it used to. Alpha code was buggy, and meant for internal use. Beta software was buggy too, but meant for outside users to test and report bugs back to the company. Gold master was what it implied, good to unleash upon the world. Time has changed, and the meanings differ. Beta software though still means "not finished". It still means "buggy".

Bugs are the new beta

Some products like Gmail were in beta for years. Now Tesla's autonomous mode is also in beta. Users can pay extra for the privilege of testing unfinished, buggy software. They need to acknowledge this though several screens that protect Tesla legally if the owner does something stupid, such as take selfie videos of themselves in the back seat while the car drives merrily along.

The problem I have is simple. If Gmail crashed in beta for you're my life wasn't affected. My life wasn't in danger. Not so much with Tesla's an their autonomous modes (that really aren't autonomous). If you engage it, as many do, click through all the legalese, and then decide to take your hands off the wheel, that's now my problem too. You see, we share public roads. If you want to take your (really not) autonomous car off road to a track, be my guest. I know a lot of folks who take their non street legal cars to do just that. No worries, we're not sharing the road.

Now, you might argue that a Tesla in autonomous mode is no worse than an inebriated driver or a driver who is busy texting, and not steering. Those drivers are making conscious decisions to do something both stupid, and illegal. To knowingly put the rest of us at risk. A beta tester of autonomous software may have no idea that autonomous isn't really that autonomous. Or that it provides one more reasons for the rest of use to to be careful around those drivers.

Yep, beta testing software that is really mission-critical is reckless no mater how many legal warning a driver has to mindlessly click through. (Have you ever read your iTunes license agreement. I thought so. Me neither.)

Apple and autonomous driving

That brings me to Apple. Apple does not ship mission critical beta software. In fact, when Apple does a "public" beta, there are a lot of warnings. There's also a lot of effort that goes into public betas — like the recent ones for iOS 10 and macOS Sierra — to make them as solid as golden masters. In fact, some beta software becomes just that.

The idea of Apple doing and autonomous car is fascinating. In fact, we discussed that on AppleTalk 3. It's hard to imagine Apple releasing any automotive feature that wasn't considered finished, though. Done. Complete.

That's probably the best reason to think we won't see an Apple car anytime soon. Sometimes it's really important to not ship something before it's ready. In the case of sorta, kinda autonomous cars, it's critically important.

Michael Gartenberg

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.

15 Comments
  • Ill be honest- I read this article because it wasn't about Pokémon. Sent from the iMore App
  • No kidding. It was incredibly reckless of Tesla to unleash this capability on the world before it was finished. And there's a larger problem: the whole idea of a "self-driving" car, that nevertheless requires you to attend to driving just as much as if you were actually driving, is ludicrous. What's the point? If I need to devote that much attention to the task, what's autopilot gaining me? I'll just drive it myself, thanks.
  • RE: "That brings me to Apple. Apple does not ship mission critical beta software."
    Cough.... Maps... cough.
  • Apple has only recently created a separate beta program. They used to call it a .0 release.
  • FYI, some sort of typo here: "If Gmail crashed in beta for you're my life wasn't affected."
  • The next sentence as well. Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree that Tesla should not have released this into the wild. Obviously the few that buy Teslas are those who desire the bleeding edge technology and are going to throw caution to the wind for their own enjoyment or to show off to friends or the word via YouTube.
    This is why the major automakers are 3-5 years behind with any technology, even radios; they take their time to test, but unfortunately, nothing is ever perfect. (Most "infotainment" car radios are f'n garbage - my wife's Equinox's radio locks up when an iPhone is connected via USB)
    If Apple waits for the software to be perfect before they sell a car, they will never sell a car. The iPhone has been out for 10 years, Mac for 32. Neither have ever been anywhere close to perfect. I don't just mean, "it doesn't do exactly what I want exactly how I want it to", I mean flawed at the things it is supposed to achieve. These things could hardly be considered "life or death". A flaw in a car's software could mean life or death.
    There have been other deadly software bugs in history. (Patriot Missile Failure: https://www.ima.umn.edu/~arnold/disasters/patriot.html ) Sent from the iMore App
  • G is for Google and Alphabet is a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google...
  • I think you could criticize Tesla for the branding and messaging of the "AutoPilot" feature where they wanted it to have both ways. It's basically an advanced cruise control feature, the gave it a name of "AutoPilot", and tried to cover their butts by saying it was in beta. Unfortunately, humans don't read or understand product warnings. They sold "AutoPilot" as an actual auto-pilot feature, where the vehicle could drive all by itself, so Tesla did it wrong right off the bat. Just that name alone was enough. But I disagree with the message of your article. Classifications of alpha, beta, production/gold master for software are moving targets that varies person to person and day to day within a person. There aren't any clear metrics for what constitutes good enough for mass consumption. The designers of the software and system has or had every intention and has or had every belief that their system was safe. Unfortunately, in any complex system, deaths will happen, and it's a function of the long march to improving a systems performance. There will be deaths from autonomous driving systems even after a long and effective "beta". What then?
  • The entire focus on 'autonomous' driving is beyond stupid. Apple just needs an ALL ELECTRIC car that sets some new records, or that is also combined with some sort of quick charging or battery swapping technology. Apple will, as always, not release some weak (PC like) rip off of existing technology. Apple will release something entirely new. It may be a car that you drive, but which warns you of obstacles, etc... (something like current lane warning systems, but better) and a very eco-friendly electric vehicle. It won't be anything like Tesla or any other experimental concept. It will be COPIED MADLY after everyone first dismisses it. IOW, just like Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple watch, etc... p.s. Shut up about Apple Maps. There was almost nothing wrong with it when it shipped, just a few distorted graphics. All map systems, especially Google maps, have errors in them. Apple maps is FAR BETTER than Google maps now, and on iOS, we have a CHOICE.
  • You have a lot of blind faith.
  • Yay let's all praise vaporware because it has a fruit logo on it! Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • At least Apple will probably ship a car eventually, something Google will NEVER do. All Google does is pretend it’s developing new technology. Remember the secret barges in San Francisco bay? Remember the Glass? Google cars have been driving around for years now with no indication they will ever be in production. They imply there will be a self-driving Google car. They’re all over the place with their Google logos, getting lots of press but where’s the beef. Nowhere, that’s where. The future of self-driving cars is up for grabs. Apple will be there. Tesla will be there. Alphabet not so much.
  • I absolutely agree with your sentiment. Drunk or impaired drivers put us all at risk and they are also clearly liable for damage caused while they are behind the wheel. Tesla has certainly covered their butts legally by making drivers who use their autonomous features click through all those screens, but with all that legal jargon, after a crash, who are we able to hold responsible from a moral standpoint? On a quick side note, may I please request further proof-reading on future articles of this nature? The arguments and statements you make are very compelling but they are weakened by a plethora of grammatical mistakes scattered throughout. A quick edit would yield a much more powerful article. Thanks and keep up the great work! Sent from the iMore App
  • Grammar check. 4th graph, 2nd sentence should say "you, " not "you're "