Elon Musk clarifies Tesla’s plan for level 5 fully autonomous driving: 2 years away from sleeping in the car

Ever since Tesla released its second generation Autopilot hardware and started offering an option called “full self-driving capability”, there’s been some confusion about Tesla’s plan for rolling out fully autonomous driving.

CEO Elon Musk has clarified the plans this week and now predicts that true level 5 autonomy is about 2 years away – though Tesla should still have advanced autonomous driving systems before that.

While Musk said that the “full self-driving capability” option on the second generation Autopilot will eventually enable level 5 autonomous driving, which means fully autonomous in any and all conditions, Tesla also specified that it is dependent on software validation and regulatory approval.

The best timeline he mentioned was based on a coast-to-coast demo drive from California to New York without the driver touching the wheel.

During his TED talk yesterday, Musk reiterated that this demo drive is still planned for 2017:

“November or December of this year, we should be able to go from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during the entire journey.”

But Musk also said that while the driver wouldn’t have to touch the controls, he doesn’t think that it would be at a level where someone could just fall asleep at the wheel. When asked when he thinks that will be, he said about 2 years away.

It would mean that between the end of the year and around 2019, Tesla could have a level 4 autonomous system enabled in second generation cars – meaning the vehicles can drive themselves without a driver as backup, but not in all conditions or environment.

It’s in line with the expected availability of the system being on the basis of jurisdiction. Unless a clearer national standard is adopted, autonomous driving systems are currently regulated on a state-by-state basis and certain states, like Michigan for example, already have a path to commercial availability of self-driving.

Once ready, Tesla could technically enable a system like that in those markets, but for a truly level 5 coast-to-coast drive where someone could be sleeping at the wheel or not even be in the driver’s seat, it’s unlikely to be before Musk’s “2-year” timeline.

During his talk yesterday, Musk also reiterated Tesla’s vision based approach – reassuring current owners that autonomy can be achieved only with cameras (there are 8 around Tesla’s current vehicles):

“Once you solve cameras for vision, autonomy is solved; if you don’t solve vision, it’s not solved … You can absolutely be superhuman with just cameras.”

Most companies currently working on self-driving technology are also working with vision-based systems, but most of them are also complementing their cameras with lidar sensors – something Tesla believes is not necessary.

In other words, it looks like Musk believes Tesla will solve computer vision by the end of the year, hence the timeline for the demo drive across the country, but it may take another year to prove the reliability of the system and bring it to a level 5 autonomous capability in all driving modes.

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