Tesla CEO Elon Musk made a series of bold predictions today about the ability for his company’s cars to completely drive themselves. And Musk thinks it will happen sooner than most of his competitors — perhaps as soon as the end of this year.
Musk made the comments at an invitation-only event for investors at Tesla’s Palo Alto-headquarters, laying out a near-future vision in which self-driving Teslas vehicles compete with the likes of Waymo, GM, and Uber.
Here are some of the main takeaways from Tesla’s “autonomy day” event:
- Tesla unveiled a new microchip that Musk said was being included in every new Tesla produced today. He called “the best chip in the world… objectively.”
- It’s a high-performance, special-purpose chip built by Samsung in Texas, manufactured with autonomy and safety in mind.
- The company is about halfway through the design process for the next-generation chip, which Musk estimated would be about three times better than the current system.
- Musk estimated that by the middle of 2020, Tesla’s autonomous system will have improved to the point where drivers will not have to pay attention to the road.
- He said the company will roll out autonomous taxis next year in some parts of the US. The service will allow Tesla owners to add their cars to a Tesla network, which he said would be akin to Uber or Airbnb.
- “We will have more than one million robotaxis on the road,” Musk said. “A year from now, we’ll have over a million cars with full self-driving, software... everything.”
- These cars will be Level 5 autonomy with no geofence, which is a fancy way of saying they will be capable of driving themselves anywhere on the planet, under all possible conditions, with no limitations. There are no cars on the road today that are Level 5.
- Tesla robotaxis could generate owners up to $30,000 a year in profit, Musk predicted.
- Musk promised that Tesla would soon be making cars that could last for at least one million miles, while requiring minimal maintenance.
Musk has been criticized for overstating the autonomous capabilities of Tesla’s vehicles, while also beta testing semi-autonomous features on his customers — with occasional dire consequences. Teslas have been involved in a handful of crashes, some of them fatal, involving the use of the company’s Autopilot system. Musk is known for setting deadlines he cannot meet, and for making predictions that fail to come true. (Musk had previously forecast that his cars would be fully self-driving by 2018.) As a a result, his company’s stock is some of the most shorted in the world.
But Musk saw the investor day as an opportunity to lay out in full his company’s bold plans for self-driving cars, while drawing a clear distinction between Tesla and every other company working on this technology today. It was a shot across the bow of an industry that has been taking pains recently to dial back expectations about the eventual rollout of self-driving cars.
“The fundamental message consumers should be taking today is that it’s financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla,” Musk said. “It’ll be like owning a horse in three years. I mean, fine if you want to own a horse, but you should go into it with that expectation.”
Early reactions to Tesla’s dense presentation was positive, if skeptical. The company’s claims about the capability of its AI chip were noteworthy, and should have competitors like Nvidia and Intel-owned Mobileye nervous, says Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Navigant.
“Assuming that the new custom silicon actually lives up to the claims, the computer looks very impressive on a performance level,” Abuelsamid says. “This potentially puts them well ahead of what Nvidia and Intel/Mobileye are able to achieve right now at comparable power consumption levels. The only current compute platform that can exceed the Tesla claims is the Nvidia Pegasus, which consumes significantly more power.”
Others were less impressed. Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, a coalition of autonomous vehicle industry players and nonprofits aimed at improving the public’s understanding of automated vehicles, posted a thread on Twitter during the presentation that criticized Musk’s claims without mentioning him by name.
“It is damaging to public discussion about advanced vehicle technologies — and potentially unsafe — to refer to vehicles now available for sale to the public using inaccurate terms,” PAVE wrote.
It is damaging to public discussion about advanced vehicle technologies – and potentially unsafe – to refer to vehicles now available for sale to the public using inaccurate terms.— PAVE Campaign (@PAVECampaign) April 22, 2019
Tesla currently sells a “Full Self Driving” (FSD) option for $5,000 (or $7,000 after delivery), with Tesla’s recently unveiled “Navigate on Autopilot” feature that guides the car from “on-ramp to off-ramp” by suggesting and making lane changes, navigating highway interchanges, and proactively taking exits.
The company recently pushed an over-the-air software update to enable automatic lane changes without any input from the driver. And later this year, Tesla promises that cars equipped with FSD will be able to drive automatically in cities, and “recognize and respond to traffic lights and stop signs.”
The name “Full Self Driving” is just branding, and experts warn it is not representative of the car’s real capabilities. When activating Navigate on Autopilot, a warning screen pops up on the center display that reads, “Navigate on Autopilot does not make your Model 3 autonomous. Like other Autopilot features, the driver is still responsible for the car at all times.” Drivers who take their hands off the steering wheel risk disengaging the feature. Musk’s comments today have the potential to further muddy the waters with respect to how self-driving cars are discussed in public.
Musk says Tesla’s vehicles have all the hardware necessary to enable “Full Self Driving.” That includes a sophisticated onboard computer, eight cameras that cover 360 degrees, front-facing radar, and short-range ultrasonic sensors. Pending regulatory approval, all Tesla needs to do is “flip the switch” and push a software update to transform an estimated 400,000 vehicles on the road today into self-driving cars.
The company is said to be making progress on a new Autopilot neural net in its latest software update, but the idea that current regulations are preventing its rollout is confusing. There are no laws preventing Tesla from following through on this promise right now. As long as Tesla’s cars meet the current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards — and they do — this can be accomplished whenever Musk wants.
Most experts say that fully autonomous cars are still 10 years away, or even unachievable with Tesla’s vision-based approach. Nearly every company currently working on self-driving vehicles, including leaders like Alphabet’s Waymo, GM, and Ford, use a light-beam sensor called LIDAR. Musk calls LIDAR “a crutch,” and has long argued that it is too expensive and bulky for Tesla’s vehicles.
At today’s event, Musk went further than he ever has in bashing companies that use laser sensors. “LIDAR is a fool’s errand, and anyone who relies on LIDAR is doomed,” he said.
Companies that use LIDAR are adamant the sensor is a necessary ingredient for self-driving cars. “Vehicles that don’t have LIDAR, that don’t have advanced radar, that haven’t captured a 3D map are not self-driving vehicles,” Ken Washington, Ford’s chief technical officer, said during a recent interview with Recode. “They are great consumer vehicles with really good driver-assist technology.”
Musk’s claims about the Tesla Network drew a lot of questions from investors about per-mile costs and liability. Asked who would be liable in the event of a crash involving a Tesla robotaxi, Musk said “probably Tesla.”
Musk has been kicking around the idea of launching an Uber competitor for almost three years now. In 2016, Musk released his “Master Plan - Part Deux,” in which he proposed allowing Tesla owners to add their car to a “Tesla shared fleet,” which later become known as the “Tesla Network.” Musk described the network as an on-demand ride-hailing service in which Tesla owners can lend their vehicles for autonomous taxi rides when they’re at work or on vacation. Musk theorized that if used enough, the vehicle could potentially end up paying for itself.
The idea fell off the radar for several years, as Tesla slipped into its Model 3 “production hell.” It resurfaced late last year, when Musk brought up the idea of renting out your Tesla vehicle like you would your home on Airbnb during an earnings call. “The advantage that Tesla will have is that we’ll have millions of cars in the field with full autonomy capability and no one else will have that,” he said at the time. “So I think that will end up putting us in the strongest competitive position long-term.”
At Monday’s event, Musk offered his most detailed description of the robotaxi service, indicating the current cost would be $0.18 per mile and would decrease over time.
While investors and experts process Tesla’s presentation, many critics warn that Musk’s statements should be taken with a grain of salt — especially as it relates to full autonomy.
“Claiming that the Tesla cars have the hardware for full autonomy and only need the software is like saying that we have seeds, we just need to plow, plant, nurture, harvest and then eat,” said Raj Rajkumar, an electrical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. “Basically they are at the starting point — full autonomy is many years away.”