Earlier today, Tesla CEO Elon Musk informed the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai that Tesla would have “basic functionality” for its full self-driving technology by the end of this year. What he didn’t say, though, is that we’d get to use it anytime soon.
Many outlets are running headlines that seem to suggest Tesla’s cars could be sold with level 5 autonomous capability by the end of this year, like this headline, “Elon Musk says full self-driving Tesla tech ‘very close’” from the BBC. That just isn’t accurate.
Tesla’s customer cars will not be available with full self-driving capability by the end of the year. However, Musk is claiming the foundational technology Tesla is working on with which to build a theoretical self-driving system could be complete later this year.
Here’s what the guy actually said, via the BBC:
Speaking via video, Mr Musk told the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai: “I’m extremely confident that level five - or essentially complete autonomy - will happen and I think will happen very quickly.
“I feel like we are very close.
“I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level five autonomy complete this year.
“There are no fundamental challenges remaining.
“There are many small problems.
“And then there’s the challenge of solving all those small problems and putting the whole system together.”
Real-world testing was needed to uncover what would be a “long tail” of problems, he added.
The SAE level system for automation outlines six levels (level 0 through level 5) of driver-assisted or autonomous operation of a vehicle. Tesla’s current Autopilot system is a level 2 system, where the driver operates with combined automated functions, but has to keep a hand on the wheel and maintain awareness of their surroundings with frequent input.
No companies currently employ a level 5 system, which would be considered “fully autonomous.” With a level 5 autonomous system, the car is hypothetically capable of performing all driving functions in any condition, with the passengers or a remote operator potentially opting-in for control at will but theoretically never having to.
With that being said, Musk isn’t being entirely misleading. Tesla and Musk have never shied away from admitting the goal of Autopilot is to feel like the car is driving itself—an approach that has led to mishandling of the system by drivers and multiple safety investigations following fatal Tesla crashes.
And it’s very likely that the “full self-driving” functionality Musk mentioned at the conference today is a system more capable than the current Autopilot build.
Tesla’s idea again is to automate every part of the driving process and have all the systems work together, from the moment Summon picks you up, Autopilot drives you through the traffic jams and drive-thrus, over the railway crossings and through town to work, where it drops you off and goes and parks itself.
As impressive as this system could be, whether it shows up this year or later, it will not be a level 5 system in any regard. It will simply be a stack of independently automated driver-assistance functions all taped together to create a convincing simulated driving experience, in the ideal weather conditions where there are clear road markings and no infrastructure issues, like a broken street light, and with enough redundancy to make sure dirt or water on a camera lens doesn’t brick the car.
In Tesla’s testing, it’s possible they could have a system where the car navigates completely automated in a controlled environment.
But in the near term, whatever public-facing updates come to cars equipped with Tesla’s optional $8,000 full self-driving upgrade will simply be more automated scenarios programmed into the computer. The occupant in the driver’s seat will need to engage with the controls and monitor the environment still. That’s not level 5.
Reality is ruthless, and autonomous cars are still a theory. Tesla’s approach appears to perceive autonomy as a pyramid: keep working from the base and eventually you’ll reach an end-point. This is because it’s a business, and at some point they need to hit the top of the development pyramid and have a product to box and sell.
Autonomy instead presents a fractal of problems—infinite issues to sort out that only unlock more issues. You could be building your pyramid forever, so just be ready for that.