Elon Musk: Level 5 Autonomous Driving 'Very Close'

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
elon musk level 5 autonomous driving 8216 very close

Tesla is reportedly “very close” to achieving complete driving autonomy, according to CEO Elon Musk.

“I’m extremely confident that level 5 or essentially complete autonomy will happen and I think will happen very quickly,” Musk said during a video message for the opening of Shanghai’s annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference.

Reuters reported the CEO saying he was confident that Tesla would have “the basic functionality for level 5 autonomy complete this year.”

We’d love to give Musk the benefit of the doubt on this one; SpaceX has achieved so much under his supervision that it feels almost silly to doubt him on anything technological. Musk could say that he was building an Iron Man suit and once-reputable scientific outlets would take it as gospel — we know that, because it happened in 2016.

But the claimed suit never manifested and we can only guess as to why. The odds of it being secretly tested at Area 51 right now seems just as plausible as Musk turning on the hype taps to draw attention. The man’s an innovator, whether in regard to cutting-edge technologies or advanced marketing tactics. Maybe it’s a battle suit with piles of government cash behind it or perhaps a powered exoskeleton aimed a helping UPS drivers lug around packages. It could even be a dream he had the night before.

Tesla’s autonomous driving development has walked a similar path. While Autopilot was the belle of the ball upon its debut, rival manufacturers have caught up and released advanced driver-assistance systems of their own (systems that, unlike Autopilot, incorporate a driver-monitoring camera for added safety). The next step for the industry is the addition of true self-driving capabilities, yet progress has been slower than expected across the board. Promises have gone unmet. No automaker has thus far managed to deliver on its promise of total autonomy, including Tesla.

In 2015, Musk told Fortune he envisioned self-driving cars being just a couple of years away. He claimed all the difficult work had been done and the necessary hardware was in place; it just needed to be tuned to perfection. “I think we have all the pieces, and it’s just about refining those pieces, putting them in place, and making sure they work across a huge number of environments — and then we’re done,” Musk said.

Experts who were once very bullish on the technology have since changed their minds, however. What was originally seen as something that would fundamentally change how we drive by 2020 has morphed into an issue requiring substantial technological improvements before it’s unleashed on the public. Meanwhile, legal departments around the globe are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to avoid liability when this technology inevitably fails, causing an accident. You can’t fault the driver if they’re not in direct control and, if you do, the appeal of “autonomy” suddenly becomes exceedingly difficult to market.

We’re already seeing this with Autopilot. While not technically self driving, it is capable enough to fool the naive — resulting in high-profile wrecks that could likely have been avoided. In the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the fatal incident that took place in Mountain View, California in 2018, it faulted both Tesla’s Autopilot and a distracted motorist. The system accidentally steered the vehicle off the highway, and the driver was believed to have been absorbed in a gaming application on his cell phone prior to the crash.

Level 5 autonomy would have theoretically prevented the incident. But that comes with many presumptions, the first being that true autonomy is even achievable. As of now, there’s little to suggest modern on-board computers are more adept at driving than someone who is actually paying attention behind the wheel. Even then, there’s still the question of liability and how companies will act before self-driving is polished to a point where the public actually becomes excited again.

If Elon Musk wants anyone to buy into the concept of autonomy with any seriousness, we’ll need serious proof this time around. Too many manufacturers have already let us down. However, if all he wanted was a bunch of media outlets to quote him as saying his company is still on the cutting-edge of advanced automotive technologies, well, then he’s already reached his goal.

[Image: B.Zhou/Shuterstock]

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3 of 26 comments
  • Schmitt trigger Schmitt trigger on Jul 10, 2020

    Where does a visionary man stop and a delusional one starts? Think a little bit, it is quite a blurry line.

    • EBFlex EBFlex on Jul 10, 2020

      Muskrat has been a delusional snake oil salesman from the start.

  • Schurkey Schurkey on Jul 11, 2020

    There are two viable answers to "autonomous vehicles". 1. Outright ban them. Kill them with fire so they can never, never be sold. Legally require a human driver. Prevent the vehicle from steering, accelerating, or braking without direct human involvement. "Speed-holding" devices ("Cruise Control") would be permitted. 2. Make the manufacturer of this hateful, non-viable technology LEGALLY RESPONSIBLE for all damages, plus "pain and suffering", "Mental anguish", etc. I prefer #1; but I'd accept #2.

  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !
  • VoGhost It's very odd to me to see so many commenters reflexively attack an American company like this. Maybe they will be able to find a job with BYD or Vinfast.
  • VoGhost I'm clearly in the minority here, but I think this is a smart move. Apple is getting very powerful, and has slowly been encroaching on the driving experience over the last decade. Companies like GM were on the verge of turning into mere hardware vendors to the Apple brand. "Is that a new car; what did you get?" "I don't remember. But it has the latest Apple OS, which is all I care about." Taking back the driving experience before it was too late might just be GM's smartest move in a while.
  • VoGhost Can someone Christian explain to me what this has to do with Jesus and bunnies?
  • Del My father bought GM cars in the 60's, but in 1971 he gave me a used Datsun (as they were called back then), and I'm now in my 70's and am happy to say that GM has been absent from my entire adult life. This article makes me gladder than ever.