Elon Musk will make driverless cars a reality sooner than you think
Elon Musk has promised the world that a completely automated Tesla will be available by the end of 2018. Although other companies revise their estimates for self-driving vehicles in the consumer market – Waymo has pushed its date back to 2020, for instance – Musk is being coy. He’ll have it ready even sooner.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE International) has established five widely-accepted steps to vehicular autonomy. Level five equates to true driverlessness, where cars can drive as competently as humans (or, hopefully, more so). The preceding four are colloquially known as “feet off, hands off, eyes off and brain off” – and I believe Tesla will unveil a consumer-class level-four vehicle long before 2018 is over.
But wait, we haven’t had a level-three Tesla yet – doesn’t that have to come first? Actually, no. While the five levels make sense in theory, in practice, there’s no useful distinction between levels three and four. In fact, level three – eyes off, but brain on – could be considered dangerous because it combines all the things humans are bad at: quickly switching between tasks, maintaining focus on two things at once and staying awake on dull English motorways.
If you don’t need to have eyes on the road but you do need to be alert, what do you do? Read, talk, watch TV? OK, picture this: your seat’s reclined, your window’s down and Tyrion Lannister just delivered a killer piece of snark. Would you notice your car – which you hadn’t paid attention to for the past hour – was in need of course correction? Could you switch from sleepy Netflix bingeing to crisis aversion in milliseconds? The odds aren’t great.
We’ve already seen this problem occur. Tesla’s Autopilot is a level-two system that still requires you to be cognizant of what’s going on around you. But humans can’t concentrate just a little bit. In 2016, Joshua Brown’s Auto-piloted Tesla Model S mistook a white lorry for a clear expanse of sky, and Brown – who was watching a film – couldn’t correct it in time. The car slammed into the lorry and Brown died.
Humans just aren’t built to co-operate with machines in this way. It makes sense to stop trying to make humans and drivers share the work, and skip straight to machines taking over. Level four. And Tesla is the company to do it.
Why? Because it’s a tech firm as much as a car firm. Its customers are early adopters by nature. This means Musk can afford to take bigger risks than established automotive marques.
A disaster such as the 2016 crash could have been the end of any other car brand. But because it was a Model S, when details emerged about the driver watching Harry Potter, Tesla fans were more inclined to blame the man than the machine. In effect, the accident was ascribed to user error and followers continued signing up for the next model. This forgiving mindset of Musk’s fanbase that will ensure Tesla is the first to produce fully autonomous cars.
Elon Musk is just crazy enough to make it work – and sooner than he’s letting on.