Elon Musk: Don't fall asleep at the wheel for another 5 years

Following Tesla's news that it's bringing autopilot to its electric sports cars, CEO Elon Musk says autonomous, self-driving cars aren't far off either.

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Eric Mack
2 min read

It could be OK to fall asleep behind the wheel of this in less than 10 years. Tesla Motors

Elon Musk takes a cautious approach to artificial intelligence, but he's certainly not afraid of making our cars a little -- or even a lot -- smarter. After the Tesla Motors founder unveiled a new autopilot feature for the company's line of electric sports cars Thursday, he told Bloomberg Television that fully autonomous vehicles could be available within a decade.

"That will be the case at some point in the future. Like maybe five or six years from now I think we'll be able to achieve true autonomous driving where you could literally get in the car, go to sleep and wake up at your destination," Musk said. He added that it may take a few years beyond the point when the technology is ready for regulators to sign off on it.

Musk also stressed that the new Tesla autopilot system, which uses radar, ultrasonic sensing and cameras to create a sort of super-smart cruise control, obstacle avoidance and lane-keeping system, is not the same as a self-driving car.

"Autopilot is what we have in airplanes. For example we use the same term that is in airplanes where there is still an expectation that there will be a pilot. So the onus is on the pilot to make sure that the autopilot is doing the right thing."

Musk said that a couple of years ago autonomous cars looked like they were a decade away, but the rate of improvement and progress toward the goal makes him more optimistic that it could be sooner.

Interestingly, Musk's optimism about self-driving cars comes from a man who often sounds the warning alarm about the dangers of super-smart machines.

On Wednesday, Musk semi-seriously joked to Walter Isaacson on stage at Vanity Fair's New Establishment Summit in San Francisco that if some sort of intelligent system had a function that "is just something like getting rid of email spam and it determines the best way of getting rid of spam is getting rid of humans..." Musk trailed off.

Musk has also said he fears a real-life Skynet scenario, and he tweeted over the summer that artificial intelligence could be " potentially more dangerous than nukes."

Let's just hope that if Skynet ever does rise up that Tesla will already have built a sufficient enough firewall to keep any menacing, artificially intelligent system from turning Elon's new autopilot system into an auto-murdering "spam removal" feature.