Elon Musk Confirms Cross-Country Autonomous Tesla Road Trips in 2017


Elon Musk announced Wednesday that all the vehicles Tesla produces, from now on, will have full self-driving capability. That’s Level 5 — the maximum possible level outlined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Level 5 means that steering wheels are practically irrelevant; it means that the car can safely navigate all roads, and all environmental conditions, better than a human.

“Full autonomy will be standard on all vehicles that Tesla makes from here on out,” Musk told reporters after Tesla made its announcement at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Musk shared the news that all Teslas, beginning this week, will ship with what Tesla calls Hardware 2. “The foundation is laid for the cars to be fully autonomous, at a safety level we believe to be at least twice that of a person,” he said. “But that safety factor will only improve as the system ages. “In the long term, we want to try to get to a 10x improvement, and so that will require ongoing refinement of the hardware.”

He then pointed out that even a 2x safety improvement, spread across the board, would save hundreds of thousands of lives. “You’d go from 1.2 million deaths to 600,000 deaths,” he said. “Not to mention all the serious injuries, and other things that happen, that aren’t in the fatality statistics. So I think there’s still a lot of merit in trying to go from twice as safe, to ten times as safe. But I should be clear that every car Tesla produces, from here on out, will have the full autonomy hardware capabilities. Including Model 3.”

Autonomous Road Trips in 2017

Musk also doubled-down on his prediction of a car going cross-country on Autopilot by the end of 2017. “Our goal is — I feel pretty good about this goal — is that we’ll be able to do a demonstration drive of full autonomy, all the way from L.A. to New York — so, basically, from a home in L.A. to, let’s say, dropping you off in Times Square, in New York, then having the car go and park itself by the end of next year — without the need for a single touch, including the charging.”

To boost the safety of Tesla’s autonomous driving capabilities, Tesla shifted its emphasis away from Autopilot to full autonomy. Autopilot, Musk said, “does not represent self-driving any more than autopilot in an aircraft makes an aircraft self-flying.” Full autonomy, then, should eventually phase out Autopilot.

Hardware 1's vision A.I. (top) as compared with that of Hardware 2 (bottom).

He outlined the specific hardware upgrades: “We go from one camera to eight cameras, three of which are forward cameras.” There’s redundancy in the forward-facing cameras, then, for good measure. “We have 360-degree visual coverage around the car.” In addition, new chips drastically improve the processing power. “The computing power increases by a factor of 40.… In fact, it will be capable of 12 trillion operations per second. It’s basically a supercomputer in a car.” The radar system, which Tesla recently improved, will also be new and improved: “The ultrasonic sensors are next-generation ultrasonic sonar, which have about twice the range and resolution as the current sonar — and that’s also 360 degrees,” he said.

Despite these improvements, and new installations, Musk ensured us that Teslas will remain sleek. “Unless you look closely, you can’t even tell that a car is Hardware 1 or Hardware 2, because we’ve been so careful about each of the cameras being part of the frame of the car, such that nothing’s sticking out. This in no way makes the car ugly, there are no weird protuberances; it’s all incredibly subtle. We put a lot of effort into not affecting the beauty of the car.” (Not so, he might be implying, for Uber’s self-driving cars.)

Unfortunately, current Tesla owners will not be able to upgrade their Model S or X from Hardware 1 to Hardware 2. It’s impossible to have full autonomy with just one camera, Musk said. “You need eight cameras to be self-driving. You also need a lot more computing power to run the vision A.I. So, upgrading Hardware 1 cars is not realistic. It would be like giving the car a spinal cord transplant: Even if possible, best to be avoided.” He said he wishes there were another way to do it, but there isn’t one. These owners can find some solace in the fact that their cars will be superior for the next couple months, until the important self-driving features in Hardware 2 cars begin to pass their rigorous tests.