The Road to a Driverless Future

A car that could drive itself used to be solely the stuff of science fiction. Now, it's become a reality thanks to companies like Tesla.

Elon Musk's company is continuously improving its autonomous driving system, Autopilot, which it describes as "an increasingly capable suite of safety and convenience features that make personal transportation safer and more enjoyable."

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Since September 2014, when it was first added to every Tesla vehicle, Autopilot's hardware and software have been inching closer and closer to Level 5 autonomy, a level that requires zero interaction from a human driver. The system's features, which now include Autosteer, Traffic-Aware Cruise Control, Auto Lane Change, Autopark, and Summon (that one lets you call your Tesla car via a mobile app), are products of Tesla's Autopilot software learning from the behavior of human drivers.

The company rolled out enhanced Autopilot features earlier this year, and the highly anticipated 8.1 software update for its hardware 2 platform is expected to arrived this week. Clearly, Tesla's Autopilot is increasingly becoming a more advanced, more capable, and safer alternative to human drivers. So what does that mean for the rest of the auto industry?

Is Tesla the Future of Cars?

In a recent interview on CNBC's Power LunchAdam Jonas, the resident Tesla analyst from Morgan Stanley, explained just how much of an impact the autonomous cars of Tesla will have in the near future. One point he made was that Tesla's autonomous cars will lead to a faster rate of technological obsolescence for the other vehicles available today.

"Our work on used car value is focused on the technological obsolescence of the 250 million cars on US roads today – $2 trillion worth of cars. Tesla’s cars can get better because they can learn," Jonas said. "They put in that equipment so that the vehicle five years from now is much more superhuman and much better than the one that is just learning and watching right now. Our used car thesis is that in a five-year period, we are running scenarios of used car value being off by as much as 50 percent.”

Tesla is also changing the economics of electric cars, or, as Jonas put it, the "economics of electrification." He explained that, while the electric car market in the United States still has plenty of room for expansion, ridesharing will be a game changer for the tech.

"We think the electric cars for private use really are for human driving pleasure for wealthier individuals. That’s why it’s so important that in the shared model where you’re not driving 10,000 miles a year, but 50,000 or 100,000 miles in a fleet operation, then the economics of electrification you can get that payback period under three years," Jonas said. "That’s the game changer — shared."

Vehicle safety is also a factor, as car accidents in the U.S. surged to 40,000 in 2016. "It seems like the only thing progressing faster than the pace of machine learning is the pace human unlearning," Jonas said. "We're getting dumber faster than the cars are getting smarter." Tesla's quickly advancing self-driving car tech could be the perfect way to stop that trend from leading to any more deaths on the road.

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