Tesla is less than two years away from full self-driving, CEO Elon Musk said in an interview with MIT researcher Lex Fridman published on Friday. And he said Tesla was far ahead of other companies working on self-driving technology.
“To me right now, this seems ‘game, set, and match.'” Musk said.
“I could be wrong, but it appears to be the case that Tesla is vastly ahead of everyone.”
Musk told Fridman that Tesla customers would need to keep their hands on the wheel “for at least six months or something like that.” But he predicted that soon—”maybe even toward the end of this year, I’d be shocked if it’s not next year at the latest”—Tesla’s self-driving technology will become so good that “having a human intervene will decrease safety.”
Musk has maintained an optimistic mood about Tesla’s self-driving progress at the same time other industry CEOs have been tamping down expectations. (Musk is congenitally optimistic on this topic—in 2015, he predicted that fully self-driving cars would be ready within two years, declaring it a “much easier problem than people think it is.”)
“We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles” Ford CEO Jim Hackett said on Tuesday. Ford is aiming to introduce fully self-driving vehicles in 2021, but Hackett cautioned “its applications will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex.”
“Not even close”
Does Tesla really have a large lead over its rivals? At least one expert is skeptical.
“Tesla Autopilot is not yet even close to where Waymo was 6 years ago,” wrote Brad Templeton, a longtime self-driving car evangelist who advised Google during the early years of its self-driving car program.
By 2012, Google had developed highway driver assistance software that had capabilities similar to recent versions of Autopilot. Google considered selling this technology as a standalone product but decided there was too much danger of drivers becoming overly reliant on the technology—and failing to properly monitor it.
So Google pivoted to developing fully self-driving cars that would never need customers to take control. By 2015, Waymo was confident enough in its technology to allow a blind man to ride through residential streets in Austin, Texas. But more than three years later, Google’s project—now rechristened Waymo—still hasn’t launched a fully driverless taxi service.
For its part, Tesla is aiming to add capabilities to handle stoplights and complex intersections later this year, making Tesla’s self-driving technology “feature complete,” in Musk’s terminology. But at that point, customers will still be required to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road.
The question then is how long it will take for the technology to become reliable enough that customer monitoring is no longer required. Musk apparently believes Tesla can reach this point by the end of 2020. That would be a dramatically faster rate of progress than other companies have achieved.