By on July 9, 2020

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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26 Comments on “Elon Musk: Level 5 Autonomous Driving ‘Very Close’...”

  • avatar

    You don’t see the Tesla robotaxis too much around here.
    I think they are all subterranean in the Boring Company Tunnels.

    • 0 avatar

      When I moved to Michigan to work in automotive, there was a sign on a machine shop in my neighborhood: “Our Business is Boring” – always made me smile.

  • avatar

    I’m waiting for Level 6. Tech that avoids white semis and red fire trucks alike.

  • avatar

    Snake oil salesman makes declaration of its guaranteed health benefits.*

    *Sometimes it kills you instead.

  • avatar

    Until Level 5 is a reality, there is no point in even offering lesser capable systems. The current systems require MORE driver attention than just driving yourself. It’s like driving with a teen driver. Not a bit relaxing.

  • avatar

    Nice to see Muskrat back to his usual lying and deceiving ways.

    The terribly named “auto pilot” system doesn’t work. How can this system be close?

    This guy is such a fraud.

  • avatar

    Suppose you live in the country at the end of a long drive off a gravel road. Level 5 means you type in the address and the car at least parks in your yard with a few inches of fresh snow on the ground. Many navigation systems don’t know within a mile where country people live.

    • 0 avatar

      Teslas are for enlightened urbanites only, and not for poor people who live outside five major US cities.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not sure Level 5 is limited to mapped roads. That’s more of a Level 4.8. A true Level 5 should be able to go anywhere a human can (legally?) take the vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      “at least parks in your yard with a few inches of fresh snow on the ground.”

      The snow issue is being solved, but not by Tesla. There is ongoing research on using ground-penetrating radar to map underground signatures. That and improved GPS should help, but the technology is years away.

      You’re missing some of the real problems with navigation in rural areas. The nav systems I use are just fine in back areas and remote gravel roads. If I do find a problem, I have authorization from the company that makes the system to submit modifications. One problem on back rural roads is that they can be damaged by flash floods, so you can’t depend on the road surface being usable. Something that can change within minutes. That’s a tough one to sort out. The other problem are things like trees falling. That happens a lot. I doubt Teslas AI would be able to handle either of those issues.

      I also know a place where there are two roads running on either side of a really narrow, maybe 10 ft wide river. The tree canopy is so heavy that it messes with the GPS signal and the car can’t figure out which side of the river it’s on. The system has to figure out that even though the GPS says it’s on the right side of the river, the river is to it’s right with a field on the left, so it must actually be on the left side. The system can also use dead-reckoning to figure out that the GPS has lost its mind.

      • 0 avatar

        Interesting thought about the gravel back road problem. My highway, once I leave my subdivison, is a very curvy narrow two-lane paved road that runs along the lakeshore, with overhanging trees. It’s quite picturesque. So in summer, all the city folk come out for a drive on Sundays to admire the view and wander over the centerline around blind curves to meet oncoming Harleys travelling too close to the centerline themselves while all leaned over. Boink! You can also practise avoiding the would-be Tour-de-France wannabes, single or in peloton flocks of self-righteous road-hogging glory. Let’s try Elon’s miracle out on my road. In winter, well it can be a challenging drive and many a vehicle has ended up in the drink – can a Tesla counter-steer in a skid?

        So far as subterranean ground mapping radar solving the snow problem goes, you’d have to convince me that it really works or is worthy of spending huge money on. There’s always some dolt who digs up the road on two-laners to put a pipe in for reasons unclear to mere mortals, right after the road is re-paved of course. Or water main breaks that cause sudden unknown giant holes — that happened 10 miles away from me a week ago. Restoration was a three day affair in a heat wave due to complications, and our subdivision was at the end of the line – I speak with memories of parched throat and trying to find a public toilet in the pandemic, when even friends can’t let you in their abodes. Autonomous driving touted to replace trucking jobs when there won’t be enough jobs to go around after this virus, would seem to be likely as popular as moldy bread. But our corporate overlords won’t care about that.

        I dunno, what in hell is wrong with just driving?

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        I ran GPR in an urban environment looking for “burried structures” that were made to explode when you ran them over. It was OK at around 3 m.p.h.

  • avatar

    I don’t know what to believe about Level 5 autonomous driving. (I do know that Level 0 manual control seems worse than ever right about now.)

    But I’m up for some cheap personal attacks – who’s with me?

    • 0 avatar

      I was on a narrow, winding backroad with a 40 mph speed limit. Came around a curve and there was a Camry doing 23 mph. Sure enough, the guy was holding a phone to his ear. Where I live, we have marked, multilane traffic circles. You have to be able to interpret the road markings as to what lane you need to be in and when to change. It’s not something that would be difficult for a self-driving system, but a lot of humans have a tough time dealing with them. When they’re used correctly, they are fantastic intersections that can move a lot of traffic quickly, but one mistake and you are toast.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Not gonna happen.

    I suspect he’s trying to avoid a lawsuit over the fraudulent FSD sales, by claiming FSD is imminent. This is going to blow up.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Where does a visionary man stop and a delusional one starts?

    Think a little bit, it is quite a blurry line.

  • avatar

    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.

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