People love it when Elon Musk speaks during quarterly earnings calls because he simply cannot resist letting information slip that is really supposed to be confidential. The analysts ask targeted questions. Musk tries to avoid giving an answer, then blunders ahead and spills the beans anyway. It’s fun to watch.
Last week, analysts peppered Musk with questions about the road ahead for Autopilot and fully autonomous driving. Their interest was sparked by two recent events — the announcement that Tesla and MobilEye are ending their long time business relationship and Musk’s announcement last week that the Model X will be the basis of a multi-passenger electric minibus dedicated to urban transportation.
Neel N. Mehta of Morgan Stanley was first to ask for a “an update on Tesla’s proprietary mapping initiatives.” Elon began with this feint. “I think we would prefer to be confidential in that regard.” Then he plunged ahead anyway. “What we’ve said thus far is that there’s need to have much higher definition maps than currently exists anywhere in the world in order to have full autonomy. And we’re in the process of building those and I think making good progress.”
That got the ball rolling. Nest, James J. Albertine of Consumer Edge Research asked to “understand in more detail I think how you [Elon] plan to get to fully autonomous.” To which Elon said “Well, again, major product announcements are not – I shouldn’t do those on an earnings call, obviously. And all I’d say is that full autonomy is going to come a hell of a lot faster than anyone thinks it will. And I think what we’ve got under development is going to blow people’s minds. It blows my mind, so.”
He wasn’t done. Colin Rusch of Oppenheimer asked “how you guys are going to approach that functionality going forward with the driver assist in the autonomous driving push going forward?” Elon answered that “I think we’ll have a more significant announcement on that later. So it’s not really – earnings call is not the right time for that except that it will be a Tesla solution, internal solution.”
Then Brad Erickson of Pacific Crest Securities pressed for more information. “I guess given that you’re obviously no longer working with this key supplier [Mobileye] around full autonomy. What are the major hurdles that you see for Tesla here to overcome to get to full autonomy? Is it just a case of software development, lots more miles driven and basically getting the right people in place? Any color on sort of some of the key challenges you’re facing and where you’re particularly focused for delivering full autonomy at some point?”
Elon finally gave some more details: “Well, full autonomy is really a software limitation. I mean the hardware is just to create full autonomy, so it’s really about developing advanced, narrow AI for the car to operate on. I want to emphasize narrow AI, it’s like not going to take over the world, but it needs to be really good at driving a car. So increasingly sophisticated neural maps that can operate in reasonably sized computers in the car. That’s our focus.
“I’m very optimistic about this. It’s exciting, it blows me away, the progress we’re making. So I think if I’m this close to it and it’s blowing me away, it’s really going to blow other people away when they see it for the first time.”
According to Wikipedia, “narrow AI” — also known as “weak AI” — defines nonsentient computer intelligence or AI that is focused on one narrow task. Weak AI is defined in contrast to either “strong AI (a machine with consciousness, sentience and mind) or “artificial general intelligence” (a machine with the ability to apply intelligence to any problem, rather than just one specific problem).” Wikipedia cites Apple’s Siri as an example of a “narrow AI”.
Putting all of Elon’s responses together, we can expect a significant announcement regarding an internal Tesla solution to autonomous driving which will involve a combination of “narrow AI” software implementing sophisticated neural maps and much higher definition maps but no major hardware upgrades.
That’s good news for current Tesla owners because it is a “software” solution that can be pushed to existing cars via over the air wireless updates. Some potential customers may have put off buying a Tesla because they are waiting for the fully autonomous driving hardware to be incorporated into the cars at the factory. Now, based on Musk’s remarks, there is no reason to wait any longer.