Tesla founder Elon Musk said during Wednesday’s earnings call that the company’s Autopilot system can achieve full self-driving autonomy, as it’s at least as good as a human driver. The question is how much better than that it will need to be for self-driving Teslas to officially hit the road.

“Regulators may require some significant margin above human capability in order for a full autonomy to be engaged,” said Musk. “They may say it needs to be 50 percent safer, 100 percent safer, 1000 percent safer, I don’t know. I’m not sure they know either.”

Musk was referring to what’s known as level five autonomy, the final and most sophisticated level of self-driving technology. This is when the car can operate with zero input at all from its human occupants, meaning the steering wheel is just a comforting accessory.

Level five autonomy has long been the goal for Tesla and other companies working on autonomous driving technology, with Musk previously promising that a self-driving Tesla car would make a coast-to-coast drive. The company’s shareholder letter indicated this remains one of the company’s big symbolic goals.

“Now that the foundation of the Tesla vision neural net is right, which was an exceptionally difficult problem, as it must fit into far less computing power than is typically used, we expect a rapid rollout of additional functionality over the next several months,” the letter states, “and are progressing rapidly towards our goal of a coast-to-coast drive with no one touching the controls.”

Getting artificial intelligence to match the driving capability of humans is no small feat, but it’s also not exactly what you would call safe — after all, there are 1.3 million traffic deaths worldwide each year. As Musk indicated, regulators will almost certainly hold self-driving cars to a higher standard — potentially a much higher standard — than those driven by people.

As such, making Tesla’s autopilot as safe as a human is just a stepping stone to real level five autonomy, but it’s an important one.

“I’m confident that we can get to approximately human level with our current hardware,” he said. “And yeah, we’ll have more to say on the hardware front soon, we’re just not ready to say anything now. But I feel very optimistic on that front.”

For now, the key part of the hardware is the NVIDIA chip that handles the processing required for the autopilot system. In October, the company unveiled its newest Drive PX Pegasus computer, which NVIDIA touted as the first A.I. chip capable of attaining level five autonomy.

Tesla cars don’t feature as advanced a chip, and it’s unclear whether Musk’s comments about “the hardware front” indicated Tesla might switch to the more powerful computer, or if this was a subtle signal the car company would move to use its own, in-house chip for the autopilot. Either way, Musk reiterated the company is satisfied with its current situation.

“If it does turn out that, that a computer upgrade is necessary in order to meet the regulatory requirements in that area, we will replace the computer with something with greater power,” he said. “Which is sort of, unplug the old one, plug the new one in. But we feel confident of the competitiveness of our hardware strategy. I would say that, we are certain that our hardware strategy is better than any other option, by a lot.”


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