Musk Promises ‘Full Self-Driving Capability’ Within Six Months


Auto industry engineers, scientists and regulators are racing to work out all the details of how autonomous cars will function so that they can be ready to come to market by the early 2020s. Elon Musk, Tesla’s brash CEO, says his electric vehicles will start to gain that capability within just six months.

Musk made his pronouncement in Twitter comments late Monday, following previous remarks about the pace of upgrades to Tesla’s semi-automated Autopilot driving system.

In response to a question about the value of adding “Full Self Driving Capability” to the Palo Alto, California-based company’s products ahead of “regulatory approval,” Musk wrote: “…safety should improve significantly due to autonomy features, even if regs disallow no driver present.”

When a follow-on question asked how soon “full” self-driving, beyond Autopilot’s abilities, would arrive, Musk responded: “3 months maybe, 6 months definitely.”

Musk didn’t define what he means by “Full Self-Driving Capability” in his Twitter comments, or how extensive the changes would be.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has set different levels of autonomy, ranging from 0 to Level 5. That highest level of capability indicates that a vehicle can drive itself at all times under all conditions, requiring no human input whatsoever, while Level 4 autonomy refers to a vehicle that can be autonomous almost all the time, within determined parameters. Presumably, Teslas may be able to attain something approaching Level 4.

Though as yet there are no national laws regulating autonomous vehicles the U.S. Department of Transportation last year set basic guidelines for their development and testing, adopting SAE’s definitions of varying levels of autonomy in the process. For now, individual states are crafting their own rules.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and at automakers including Ford and Toyota say there is still much progress needed before vehicles have the ability to make the safest, best decisions under all circumstances drivers may face on the road. Designing algorithms capable of handling “edge” cases – ranging from black ice, unpredictable behavior by pedestrians, cyclists and animals, unexpected objects in the road, even simply merging and changing lanes in heavy traffic – all pose challenges to self-driving systems.

Every automaker is working to reach Level 5, “where a car can drive fully autonomously under any traffic or weather condition in any place and at any time,” Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute, the automaker’s new $1 billion advanced technology unit in Palo Alto, California, said this month in remarks at CES 2017 in Las Vegas.

“This is a wonderful goal. However, none of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 autonomy,” said Pratt, a computer scientist and past program manager for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which initiated the race to perfect self-driving vehicle technology. “Collectively, our current prototype autonomous cars can handle many situations, but there are still many others that are beyond current machine competence.”

Musk’s Twitter exchange comes after an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded last week finding no specific defect in Tesla’s Autopilot system that contributed to a fatal crash in Florida that killed a Model S owner. The driver was using the feature when his car collided with a truck that crossed his path. The system failed to detect the truck and the driver apparently was not keeping a close eye on road conditions when the accident occurred. Tesla has made numerous modifications to the Autopilot software since then to improve its ability to detect hazards.

Beginning late last year Tesla began equipping its vehicles with a suite of cameras, radar and sonar sensors, as well as a state-of-the-art Nvidia computing system, the hardware needed to give to see all conditions around them and, eventually, drive themselves. Musk said the software and algorithms needed to provide that capability would roll out over time, without elaborating.

Always eager to be at the forefront of advances in transportation Musk has set a goal for Tesla to be a leader in autonomous vehicle tech. With his six-month or less timetable he’s also laid down a line in the sand.

Source: Forbes