A glimpse into the self-driving future. Riding along in a Tesla, a reporter learns that true autonomy is years away.

When we decided it was time for lunch, Chuck Cook tapped the digital display on the dashboard of his Tesla Model Y and told the car to drive us to the Bearded Pig, a barbecue joint on the other side of the town.

''I don't know how it's gonna do. But I think it's gonna do pretty good,'' he said with the folksy infectious enthusiasm he brought to nearly every moment of our daylong tour of Jacksonville, Fla, in a car that could drive itself.

For more than two years, Tesla has been testing technology it calls  Full Self-Driving with Mr. Cook, a 53-year-old airline pilot and amateur beekeeper, and a limited number of car owners across the United States.

Tesla long offered a driver assistance system called Autopilot, which can steer, brake and accelerate its cars on highways.

But Full Self-Driving is something different. It is an effort to extend this kind of technology beyond highways and onto city streets.

This summer, Elon Musk, the company's chief executive, said the system would be available in more than a million cars by the end of the year. In August, we spent a day driving around with Mr. Cook and his Tesla to assess the progress of this experimental technology.

Over six hours, his car navigated highways, exit ramps, city streets, roundabouts, bridges and parking lots. With Mr. Cook's hands near or on the wheel and his eyes on the road, the car attempted more than 40 unprotected left-hand turns against oncoming traffic. It kept us on the edge of our seats.

The Journey To The Bearded Pig : The most telling moment came as the car drove us to lunch. After navigating heavy traffic on a four-lane road, taking an unexpected turn and quickly remapping its route to the restaurant, the car took a right turn onto a short street beside a small motel. 

But as the Tesla struggled to make sense of its environment, veering from the road into a motel parking lot, Mr. Cook had to retake control.

After driving around the motel, the car almost immediately made the same mistake, jerking into the lot this time. It was sobering to see how close we came to hitting a parked car after we rolled over a low curb separating the parking lot from the road.

Even the car's internal display suggested that the car was struggling to distinguish the curb. 

Tesla is constantly modifying the technology, working to fix its shortcomings. Since the day we drove around Jacksonville, the company has twice released new versions of the technology that shows signs of improvements. But the moment in the motel parking lot showed why it may be a long time before cars can safely drive anywhere on their own.

The experience of beta testers like Mr. Cook are a window into the enormously ambitious and expensive that Tesla is making on self-driving technology.

It and other companies are investing billions in researching and developing autonomous vehicles - taxis that can ferry us around town, trucks that will deliver our online orders and maybe even one day cars that will take our children to soccer practice.

Elon Musk and Tesla did not respond to requests to participate in this story. But Mr. Cook's Model Y provides a glimpse of the future we are moving toward, which may prove to be safer, more reliable and less stressful - but is still years away from reality.

Tesla's technology can work remarkably well. It changes lanes on its own, recognizes green lights and is able to make ordinary turns against oncoming traffic. But ever so often, it makes a mistake, forcing testers like Mr. Cook to intervene.

Experts say no system could possibly have the sophistication needed to handle every possible scenario on any road. This would require technology that mimics human reasoning technology that we humans do not yet know how to build.

Such technology called artificial general intelligence, ''is still very, very far away,'' said Andrew Clare, chief technology officer of the self-driving vehicle company Nuro.

''It is not something you or I should be banking on to help them get around in cars.''

The Essay continues. The World Students Society thanks authors Cade Metz and Ben Laffin.


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