For years, we've been promised a near future in which cars drive themselves as well as a human motorist — while their occupants scroll through Twitter or browse Netflix in a cozy cabin with comfy seats.
That dream, formally known as Level 5 autonomy, is probably still many years out — but Tesla CEO Elon Musk believes it could be right around the corner.
In a video message recorded for the opening of Shanghai’s annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC), Musk said he's confident Tesla will be able to deliver basic Level 5 autonomy in its vehicles as soon as this year.
"I'm extremely confident that level 5 or essentially complete autonomy will happen and I think will happen very quickly," Musk said in the video. "I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level 5 autonomy complete this year."
The news comes after Tesla has seen huge successes in the Asian market, selling almost 15,000 Model 3 vehicles in China in June alone, an increase of 35 percent month-over-month.
One of the vehicle's key selling points: a futuristic self-driving feature. Tesla has been offering a "Full Self-Driving" package for nearly right half a decade now, and while the company's technology has come a long way, drivers still have to be paying attention to the road, with a light-up symbol on the dashboard reminding them to place their hands on the wheel while the system is engaged.
In a recent step, Tesla released its “Traffic Light and Stop Sign Control” feature in April, which allows Tesla vehicles to navigate complex intersections, including stop signs and traffic lights, autonomously.
But when can we expect to take our hands off the wheel once and for all? Musk did not elaborate what he meant by "basic functionality." As Electrek points out, Tesla would still need to improve the system substantially for Level 5 functionality.
Musk himself seems aware of that.
"I think there are no fundamental challenges remaining for level 5 autonomy," Musk said in the video. "There are many small problems," he said, adding that future iterations would be "able to handle the vast majority of situations."
"Nothing is more complex and weird than the real world," the CEO admitted.
The artificial intelligence systems used in self-driving technologies do have limitations — and not just related to software, but hardware as well. According to Musk, Tesla is working on heat-projection and cooling systems to give the computers in Tesla cars a major upgrade in the near future.
Consumer behavior that will also have to adjust to the realities of full autonomy. And that will take a lot of building up of trust.
Tesla's "Autopilot" feature has been implicated in a number of accidents, some fatal. In the most recent incident, a Taiwanese Model 3 owner allegedly had the feature turned on right before slamming into a flipped truck trailer last month.
Other key players, including Lyft's self-driving vehicle division, are also eyeing Level 5 autonomy — in fact, the division itself is dubbed "Level 5." The company recently resumed testing its self-driving vehicles on public roads in California after a long coronavirus-imposed break.
During the break, the company had to rely on computer simulations to teach its self-driving AIs how to expect the unexpected on public roads, according to a recent blog post. The company is claiming it's been a fruitful endeavor, reducing the need of testing physical self-driving vehicles on public roads "by several orders of magnitude."
Amazon is also eyeing full self-driving technology. The e-retail giant recently purchased self-driving auto startup Zoox for $1.2 billion. According to investors, the move is likely a bid to enable autonomous last mile deliveries.
Google spin-off Waymo has often been described as the frontrunner in the race to Level 5 autonomy, with the most collective miles driven autonomously on public roads. The company's self-driving minivans are already delivering groceries in Texas. Its flagship operation in Phoenix, Arizona has been taking passengers from point A to point B for years now.
The global pandemic may have hurt operations and bottom lines for the likes of Tesla and Waymo — but it may have ended up highlighting the importance of robotic drivers as well, as Bloomberg points out. Without a driver behind the wheel, the risk of spreading the coronavirus is substantially reduced.
The same goes for autonomous delivery robots on sidewalks, with demand for contactless delivery options exploding during the pandemic.
But even with 2020 accelerating the need for such ventures, including fully self-driving cars, Musk is likely being overly optimistic about the tech.
"The hype got ahead of the reality, but honestly, it’s gone way faster than I would have ever believed,” Gary Silberg, a partner at KPMG, a multinational professional services network, told Bloomberg. "I mean, it’s literally like putting somebody on the Moon. It’s that complex."
Meanwhile, Tesla seems to relish the challenge. In April, Musk renewed his vow to deploy a million "robotaxi" vehicles by the end of the year, noting that "regulatory approval is the big unknown."
READ MORE: Tesla (TSLA): Elon Musk says ‘very close’ to level 5 autonomy complete [Electrek]
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