Electric car giant Tesla is set to realize fully autonomous vehicles “later this year,” CEO Elon Musk said Thursday. The billionaire’s latest forecast for the long-anticipated milestone is still a few years away, even though the company already has a semi-autonomous system called Autopilot in its cars.
The system allows drivers to cruise highways and maneuver city streets without having their hands on the steering wheel or watching the road. However, the driver must keep their eyes on the road and be ready to take control if the car starts acting strangely. The company’s Autopilot software is being scrutinized by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which recently pressured Tesla into recalling 363,000 cars with the feature to correct behavior like accelerating through intersections or running stop signs.
Elon Musk has been making grand promises about bringing full self-driving to Teslas since the company’s inception in 2015. But critics say he needs to be more honest with customers when he says they’re probably only a few years away from having the technology that could drive themselves on local roads without human supervision.
Musk’s remarks came via video link at the opening ceremony of an artificial intelligence conference in Shanghai. He also praised China’s AI prowess.
As for the specifics of when Tesla will have fully autonomous cars, it’s important to remember that three significant hurdles must be cleared before the feature becomes available to customers. Those include engineering, which has to reach a level far over that of human drivers, regulatory approval likely to take time across the 50 states, and a public that may be skeptical of handing over control of their car to a machine.
A new version of its Autopilot software will deliver Tesla’s full-autonomous capabilities. The system has been updated to take in more information about the environment around the vehicle, including lane markings and speed limits. It will also be able to steer itself in parking lots and other confined spaces automatically. It can now detect and move out of the way of pedestrians and other moving objects.
In addition to its cameras, the new Autopilot will use a laser rangefinder to help it navigate. It will also have more advanced sensors to understand better other vehicles’ behavior, such as how fast they’re traveling and whether they’re preparing to change lanes.
While the features will be included in every 2023 Model S and Model X, they won’t necessarily be activated by default. Owners must pay an extra $5,000 for the whole self-driving experience. And even then, the feature will only work on local roads first and require the driver to remain attentive. Eventually, it will be able to handle a wider variety of conditions, including freeways. But that will only happen once the company has proven to regulators that it’s safe enough for all users, regardless of their skill level or where they live.