In a wide ranging interview with Fortune on his way to watch the SpaceX launch on Monday, Elon Musk said Level 4 autonomous driving will be possible within 2 years. Earlier this year, he told reporters he thought such capability was 5 to 6 years away. Why the change?
Musk tweeted a few weeks ago that he is looking for software engineers to work on Tesla’s Autopilot suite of autonomous driving programs, calling it a “super high priority.” The Autopilot project reports directly to him. What Elon wants, Elon gets. People at Tesla are accustomed to doing the impossible ahead of time and under budget. If you can’t do that, you don’t work there. Simple as that.
Should mention that I will be interviewing people personally and Autopilot reports directly to me. This is a super high priority.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 20, 2015
Level 4 autonomous cars must be able to “perform all safety critical functions for an entire trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles,” according to the US Department of Transportation. Musk told Fortune that even though the software will be available in two years, it will take another year until regulators are convinced it is safe to use on public roads. “The point at which it becomes statistically clear that an autonomous car is safer, I think, regulators will be comfortable with allowing it,” he says.
During that year, the software will operate in “shadow mode,” comparing what it is programmed to do with what actually happens in real world driving. Using artificial intelligence algorithms, it will teach itself how to deal effectively with what Musk calls “corner cases.” Those are the millions of unknown and unknowable situations that human drivers face every day. The distracted pedestrian who dashes into traffic unexpectedly. The skateboarder who completes a perfect Ollie but lands in the middle of a crosswalk. The moment when a car runs a stop sign or slips sideways on an icy road.
Tesla has already turned its cars into one of the most advanced artificial intelligence networks in history. All of its cars with the Autopilot suite of sensors and software installed learn from their daily driving experiences and share that knowledge with each other. If there is road construction in Terre Haute, your Tesla will know about it, even if you live in Walla Walla and are driving in Indiana for the first time.
That’s exactly the kind of learning Musk expects Tesla’s Level 4 systems will do while working in “shadow mode,” waiting for regulators to turn them loose on public roads. He expects the network to provide the data regulators will rely on when deciding Level 4 autonomy is safe.
Tesla will not have the field for self driving cars all to itself, however. Google and Ford have just agreed to a partnership to produce autonomous cars. Faraday Future will unveil its self driving car at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Apple is still poking around with its Project Titan program. NextEV is making noise in China. Atieva has secured major funding for its new car project. And Uber is hot on the trail of building its own autonomous cars, assuming Tesla won’t be supplying it with cars any time soon.
But Tesla expects to be the firstest with the mostest when it comes to self driving cars. Its Autopilot system is already years ahead of its competitors and getting smarter every day. If I was a betting man, I would put my money on Musk — to win.