Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has often claimed the company he leads is well ahead of its rivals when it comes to autonomous technology. He doubled down on that claim during a presentation at Tesla’s Fremont, California, headquarters, saying that Tesla will deploy “autonomous robotaxis” in 2020, and may soon manufacture some cars without steering wheels or pedals.
The use of autonomous cars in a ride-sharing service was first discussed by Musk in his updated “Master Plan” for Tesla in 2016. The company plans to allow owners to add their own cars to a network of vehicles operating in an Uber-like service, with Tesla taking 25 to 30 percent of each transaction. The company will provide dedicated cars in areas where not enough customer cars are available, Musk said. All there current Tesla production models — the Model S, Model X, and Model 3 — will be used in the ride-sharing service, he said.
The launch of self-driving car ride-sharing will depend on regulatory approval, Musk noted. He said the service will likely launch only in certain areas where the regulations are suitable. But Musk expects uses of shared autonomous vehicles to ramp up quickly. In about two years, he said he expects Tesla to start making some cars without manual controls. This will in turn lower the cost of vehicles, bringing down the cost of a robotaxi-ready Tesla to around $25,000 within three years, Musk said.
Musk made those predictions at what Tesla called its first an Autonomy Investor Day. In an effort to convince skeptics that the company is really as advanced in autonomous-driving tech as it has claimed, Musk brought out key executives to discuss hardware and software in detail, with most attention focused on a newly-launched computer, as well as Tesla’s strategy for computer vision.
Tesla’s self-driving technology relies on eight cameras that stitch a 360-degree view of what’s around the car, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and a front-facing radar. But Tesla doesn’t use lidar, which is similar to radar but uses light instead of radio waves. Most other companies developing self-driving cars include lidar, but Musk has claimed it’s unnecessary. He reiterated those claims at Autonomy Investor Day.
“Lidar is a fool’s errand. Anyone relying on lidar is doomed,” Musk said. He believes the sensors are too expensive, and that similar results can be achieved using cameras to track objects. Tesla has a wealth of real-world data from its Autopilot-equipped cars that can be used to “train” computer neural networks to accurately read the environment, both Musk and Tesla AI boss Andrei Karpathy said.
The gargantuan amount of data these components generate is processed by a computer the company designed in-house. That computer is now being put into all Tesla production cars, Musk said. Currently, this hardware only powers the company’s Autopilot suite of semi-autonomous driving aids. Motorists who buy a Tesla can pay an additional $5,000 to unlock full self-driving capability, but the feature won’t be added until it’s ready for prime time. When the time comes, Tesla will release it via an over-the-air software update.
“All cars being produced right now have everything necessary for full self-driving. All you need to do is improve the software,” Musk reiterated during the presentation. Part of that is down to the new computer, which has vastly more processing power than the previous version, according to Musk. He said the computer’s predicted rate of failure is lower than that of a human driver losing consciousness. Other vital parts of Tesla cars, including cables for power and data transmission, as well as the power steering system, have built-in redundancies, Musk said. Cars are currently built to last 1 million miles, Musk said, anticipating hard use in “robotaxi” service.
Tesla self-driving cars will arrive in large numbers so soon, Musk claimed, that buying any other car today is the equivalent of buying a horse at the turn of the 20th century. Musk has promised self-driving cars multiple times in the past, however. Will this time be any different?