Elon Musk convened Tesla’s investors on Monday to reveal the fruits of the company’s research into autonomous driving. Musk invited Tesla’s top hardware and software engineers to explain to investors in granular detail just how Tesla’s new autonomous driving chip works, and how it will eventually be deployed.
Because of Tesla’s autonomous driving chips — which Tesla says at about 144 Tera Operations Per Second are about a seven-fold improvement over the nearest competitor in terms of processing power — Musk says he expects Tesla’s first autonomous “robo taxis” to begin taking to streets in 2020.
“I feel very confident predicting autonomous robo taxis for Tesla by next year. Not in all jurisdictions, because we won’t have regulatory approval everywhere. But we will have regulatory approval at least at some point next year,” Musk said toward the end of the presentation. “From our standpoint, if you fast forward a year, maybe a year in three months, but next year for sure, we will have over a million robo taxis on the road.”
So how, exactly, will Tesla get to full self-driving? Musk clarified earlier on in his more than two-hour presentation the importance of distinguishing between technological and regulatory hurdles. Tesla first has to deliver self-driving cars that are autonomous to its own satisfaction, which Musk says will happen by the second quarter of next year. Next, Tesla will have to prove to regulators that its cars can do this safely and reliably at scale to begin moving the technology to actual roads.
Here’s the full quote where Musk lays out his timeline for autonomous driving benchmarks over the next year.
There’s three steps to self driving. There’s being feature-complete, and then there’s being feature-complete to the degree where we think that the person in the car doesn’t need to pay attention.
And there’s being at a reliability level where we can also convince regulators that’s true … We expect to be future complete in self driving by this year. We expect to be confident from our standpoint where we say that people do not need to touch the wheel or look out of window, by second quarter of next year. And we expect to start to get regulatory approval at least in some jurisdictions for that by the end of next year. That’s roughly the timeline that I expect things to go on.”
In other words, while the technology needed to support something like an autonomous taxi service will be ready as early as next spring, the regulatory picture will likely keep these cars restricted to limited jurisdictions. This is actually only a minor departure from Musk’s latest autonomous driving timeline. In February, Musk said that he expected that autonomous driving would be powerful enough take over for sleeping drivers “probably toward the end of next year.”
Musk said on Monday that part of Tesla’s secret sauce was its decision to eschew lidar, a detection system which uses lasers to create images of the car’s surroundings. In the talk, Musk called lidar a “fool’s errand,” a particularly striking comment in light of the fact that most of Tesla’s competitors are using lidar in their own self-driving experiments, including Waymo, which spun out of Google X.
In 2018 alone, companies poured $420 billion into lidar-related endeavors, according to this Reuters analysis.
Instead, Tesla is using neural networks to teach its autopilot system how to engage in the forms of complex visual decision making that driving requires, explained Andrej Karpathy, Tesla’s autonomy chief.
“The core problem the chips are solving in the car is a visual recognition problem,” Karpathy explained. “This is very simple and effortless to us but this is not the case for a computer.”
The timing of Musk’s announcement has raised some eyebrows. It came just days before Tesla is set to report its financial earnings from the first quarter (Wednesday, April 24), and on the heels of a viral video that appeared to show a Model S catching fire in China. Tesla events do appear to be getting more frequent, the company unveiled a new vehicle line, the Model Y, just last month.
For his part, Musk addressed the question of whether his timelines have been unrealistic in the past in a pretty defiant manner:” “Sometimes I’m not on time,” Musk said. “But I get it done. And the Tesla team gets it done.”
You can take a closer look at the Musk’s autonomous driving timeline — and how it’s evolved over the years — in our helpful compendium below.
A Comprehensive Timeline of Elon Musk’s Autonomy Timelines
- May 2013: First mentions that autonomous driving is a logical next step in the evolution of cars during a Google event reported on by Bloomberg.
- Sept. 2013: Musk tells the Financial Times that “we should be able to do 90 per cent of miles driven within three years.”
- Oct. 2014: Tesla unveils Mobileye-Powered Autopilot at a Hawthorne event. This first Autopilot version can intervene in the event of a collision, park in a home garage, and take over during highway driving.
- June 2015: Musk predicts during a shareholder meeting that the company will achieve full self driving by June, 2018, or within three years.
- Summer 2015 (approximate): Tesla begins work on its own autonomous driving chip, based on remarks in a second quarter 2018 earnings call that the company had been working in “semi-stealth mode basically for the last two to three years.”
- Dec. 2015: Musk tells Fortune “I think we will have complete autonomy in approximately two years.”
- July 2016: Tesla releases the “Master Plan Part Deux” which explicitly states Tesla’s goals for delivering full self-driving: “We expect that worldwide regulatory approval will require something on the order of 6 billion miles (10 billion km). Current fleet learning is happening at just over 3 million miles (5 million km) per day.”
- Oct. 2016: Musk announces all cars will ship with enough cameras to enable FSD, and that the company will complete a cross country trip “all the way from L.A. to New York” by the end of 2017.
- Apr. 2017: Musk reiterates his timeline for a cross country road trip during a 2017 Ted Talk, and says that full self driving where you can fall asleep at wheel was about two years away.
- Dec. 2017: Musk predicts at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference that self driving would be safer than human driver in 3 years.
- Feb. 2018: Musk revisits timeline in an earnings call, saying that “time-wise I think we could probably do a coast-to-coast drive in three months, six months at the outside.”
- August 2018: Musk first announces that has been working on the FSD chip announced today. After shifting focus elsewhere, Musk clarifies that the team will re-focus on autonomy in Sept. 2018.
- Nov. 2018: Musk says in an interview with Kara Swisher that he “thinks” Tesla will deliver full self driving in in 2019, saying “I think we’ll get to full self-driving next year”
- Jan. 2019: Musk says during the first earnings call of the year he expects full self-driving by the end of 2019.
- Feb. 2019: Musk says on the ARK Invest podcast that it will be “safe for somebody to essentially fall asleep and wake up at their destination … towards the end of next year.”