Elon Musk, the chief executive of electric car manufacturer Tesla, yesterday claimed that his company’s vehicles will be fully autonomous by the end of the year. The capability will be a technical rather than practical one, with regulations not currently allowing driverless vehicles to travel without a driver at the wheel able to take over. However, Musk said that from a technology point of view, there are now “no fundamental challenges”, to Tesla cars driving themselves.
Tesla, says Musk, is currently “very close” to an operational and tested driverless tech stack capable of “level 5” autonomy. Level 5 refers to autonomous driving on any conditions, on any road, without the need for human intervention or assistance.
The 5 Levels Of Autonomy For Driverless Vehicles
Level 0 – traditional human driver required. The vehicle has no support systems for fully or semi-automated control.
Level 1 involves basic assistance features. Typically, Level 1 cars are equipped with an anti-lock braking system (ABS) and cruise control. The driver is still in full control of the car, but gets some forms of help.
Level 2 corresponds to semi-autonomous driving. At this level, the vehicle can drive straight, stay in its lane and control the distance from vehicles in front all on its own. For example, in case of sudden traffic jams on the road, the vehicle can take control over steering and braking.
Level 3 defines the moment when the on-board systems can take over all driving functions, but only in certain situations. However, the driver must remain at the station all the time and be ready to take over.
Level 4 is a fully autonomous experience, but with someone behind the wheel. Most of the time, the vehicle can drive on its own and will handle even complicated situations on highways and in city traffic. During the journey, the driver can take care of other things and does not have to constantly observe the traffic around him. Importantly, at Level 4, vehicles will communicate and inform each other about maneuvers such as changing lanes.
Level 5 vehicles are truly self-driving cars. They operate autonomously in all conditions. There is completely no need for people in the car to take any action. It is believed that such cars won’t even be equipped with elements such as a steering wheel.
Source: Robotics Business Review
Tesla vehicles currently being shipped to customers only offer level 2 autonomy. An autopilot feature can take a car on and off a motorway, change lanes independently, navigate crossings and take an exit. However, the feature only semi-automates motorway driving and is disabled in urban environments. The driver also still needs to be at the wheel.
Musk, 49, made his claim about Tesla being within touching distance of Level 5 at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference taking place in Shanghai, stating:
“I’m extremely confident level 5, or essentially complete autonomy, will happen and I think will happen very quickly. I feel like we are very close.”
Drivers should not, however, take Mr Musk’s confidence on the basic readiness of Level 5 technology as an indicator it will be practically available in the immediate future. He admitted that extensive ‘real world’ testing of the technology would be required to iron out a “long tail” of issues. There are also a number of regulatory blockers that will need to be navigated before Level 5 autonomy can used by Tesla owners, even if their cars could be shipped with the technology integrated.
Musk also has something of a history when it comes to claims of a similar nature. In 2015 he said he believed Tesla would achieve Level 5 autonomy by 2018. He has since repeated the boast almost annually. This time he might be right but his track record on forecasting developments is patchy to say the least, across all of his businesses.
Other leaders across the driverless car sector have been more cautious in their forward guidance. Waymo chief executive John Krafcik, has warned it will be decades before Level 5 autonomous cars will become the standard and that a human at the wheel in case of technical error might always be necessary. Waymo, owned by Google, has widely been regarded as leading the race to working Level 5 technology for a number of years now.
Tesla’s share price has shown remarkable gains over recent months, recovering from the coronavirus crisis stock market sell-off over the first half of March to last week become the world’s most valuable automaker. The company’s value overtook that of Japanese giant Toyota, despite only having a fraction of its Asian rival’s turnover and profit levels.
Tesla only recently achieved profitability, which has been maintained now for three quarters on the bounce. Its value is an indication of the confidence of investors in Tesla dominating the future EV market as well as being a leader in autonomous driving technology. Critics argue the share price is well into bubble territory and not supported by fundamentals.
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