Jesus, take the wheel! Musk makes outlandish self-driving car claim
Say goodbye to steering wheels and pedals - the Tesla boss says fully autonomous vehicles are mere months away, when falling asleep will be 'no problem'
As Elon Musk said himself during Tesla’s much-hyped “autonomy day” this week, the billionaire has a long history of missing his own deadlines. So perhaps his grand promise that Tesla will have a million self-driving taxis on the road in 2020 should not be taken at face value.
Tesla’s Autopilot technology, its existing system that helps a driver keep their distance, change lanes and, in its most sophisticated form, can navigate them down a motorway, is already highly controversial. The driver-assist system requires constant attention and vigilance from its human operator.
But, thanks in part to videos showing Musk himself with his hands very much not on the wheel and clips he has retweeted shot by Tesla fans who filmed as the car “drove” them home, there is concern that some owners have overestimated the system’s abilities. Drivers have died while using it.
That has not done anything to slow Tesla down.
Musk has said that what he calls “full self-driving”, which will respond to stop signs and traffic lights and be able to drive in a city, albeit with human supervision, will be available by the end of 2019.
On Monday he set himself a new deadline that, even by his standards, seems tight. He says that by next year his cars will be sophisticated enough that the “driver” will be able to fall asleep in them, no problem.
What’s more, the company will use these robot cars to set up a taxi network, which, like Uber, will be able to send cars to passengers who summon them. Eventually, individual owners will be able to send their own cars, driverless, out into the wild, to earn money for them by picking up and ferrying passengers around. In less than two years, he added, the company will be making cars without a steering wheel or pedals.
Quite apart from the ambition of claiming a boundless self-driving car is just a year away, the logistics of this are questionable.
Tesla is planning to incorporate an entirely different model – ride-sharing – with all its attenuating risks and complications, into its business. Having one stranger host another in a moving car, while keeping everyone safe, is no easy task, even before you account for a robot driver. And Tesla, not the owner, is likely to be liable for any accidents, Musk admitted.
There were more bold claims when it came to how Tesla’s self-driving tech will actually work. Most companies developing the software, including Waymo, the Google spin-off widely acknowledged to be the most advanced in the field, use a mix of sensor types, including lidar, radar and cameras. Tesla’s cars have no lidar, a system that uses lasers to detect the position of objects, and Musk dismissed the idea in typical ebullient fashion, insisting that all his cars have the hardware necessary for full autonomy.
“Lidar is lame. Laaaame,” he said. “They’re all going to dump lidar, that’s my prediction, mark my words.” Lidar is “expensive”, a “fool’s errand”, and “stupid” in self-driving cars, he said, telling investors “you all drove here, you were not shooting lasers out of your eyes”.
He also rubbished Waymo’s approach, which involves mapping a geofenced area and then expanding the service slowly. “If you need a geofenced area you don’t have real self-driving,” he said.
The project would be “cash-flow neutral” in build-up, and “extremely cash-flow positive” once established. Drivers would make $30,000 (R436,000) a year from their cars, with Tesla taking a 25% to 30% cut. For customers, and investors, it’s a seductive prospect: spend $50,000 on a car now, and make it back within two years once the fleet is up and running.
But detractors call what Tesla is doing dangerous and irresponsible. It was no coincidence that as the four-hour presentation wrapped up, Pave, a US safety campaign, released a tweet thread warning that overselling self-driving technology is “damaging to public discussion” and “potentially unsafe”.
However, as the event closed, Musk said: “It’s financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla. It will be like owning a horse in three years.”Any company making such revolutionary technology would hope to see their share price leap. But Tesla’s stock has barely budged, suggesting that the market is not convinced, or is more concerned about its earnings report, which was due on Thursday.For Musk, this is his toughest deadline yet, and his plan is a bet that his most powerful rivals are completely wrong. It’s a bold one.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)