Elon Musk: Tesla ‘very close’ to developing complete vehicle autonomy

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Elon Musk might produce ventilators in a Tesla factory.
Image: Wikimedia Commons | JD Lasica

During an appearance at the Shanghai-based World AI Conference, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced his company is “very close” to developing full self-driving vehicle technology. The executive expressed confidence his firm will achieve “basic functionality” Level 5 automobile autonomy this year. Uber, General Motors’ Cruise, and Alphabet’s Waymo have spent billions chasing the elusive technological breakthrough with mixed results.

Why Level 5 Vehicle Autonomy Is So Important

The Society of Automotive Engineers defines Level 5 vehicle autonomy as an automobile with the capability to drive itself under all conditions. The reason several tech industry giants and startups have pursued the innovation is its immense and multifaceted financial promise. A viable Level 5 solution could revolutionize the personal transport, taxi, and ground freight industries on a global scale.

In February, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann estimated the technology would create an $8 trillion addressable market.

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Unfortunately, the company has deployed a complete independent automobile solution despite years of research and staggering capital expenditures. After 20 million miles of road testing, Waymo conceded its robotaxis would need human safety drivers for years to come. Uber briefly suspended its multibillion-dollar autonomous vehicle program last year after a fatal accident. And Cruise did not release a new launch timeline for its self-driving cab service after delaying its introduction in 2019.

At present, the most viable application for the technology might be in ground freight shipping. Amazon paid $1.3 billion to acquire autonomous vehicle startup Zoox, most likely in hopes of automating its logistics fleet. Self-driving truck company TuSimple revealed it partnered with UPS, Penske, and McLane to establish a network of almost autonomous big rigs.

That said, Musk’s statement about Tesla nearing a great technological leap forward might have some merit.

Why Tesla Might Soon Break the Level 5 Barrier

Founded in 2003, Tesla rose to prominence because it successfully made functional and aesthetically pleasing battery-powered cars. Along its path to transforming the automobile industry, the firm received a raft of criticism from incredulous rivals in market watchers. Nevertheless, the company prevailed and established a brand strong enough to move nearly 100,000 electric vehicles during a viral pandemic. As such, it has earned consideration as a trailblazing brand that might have solved the era’s biggest technological conundrum.

In recent years, Tesla has positioned its advanced driver assistance system, Autopilot, as a key selling point. The manufacturer has attracted customers by positioning the program as a precursor to full vehicle autonomy but with considerable controversy. Currently, the firm is facing multiple lawsuits and government scrutiny because of the incorrect perception that Autopilot does not require human oversight.

On the other hand, Tesla has gotten closer than any other company in developing complete vehicle autonomy. Its in-house research and development teams have created a robust software and hardware self-driving stack. Recent upgrades like Smart Summon and Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control suggest the automaker is on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

The electric vehicle corporation has also collected lots of information from the hundreds of thousands of vehicles it has in the field. Because of the size of its fleet and sophistication of sensors, the company probably possesses the world’s largest autonomous vehicle real-world testing dataset. With those considerations in mind, the notion of Tesla being “very close” developing Level V technology sounds reasonable.

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