Auto Tech

Elon Musk says Tesla's self-driving tech is 'vastly ahead of everyone'

Say what you want about Elon Musk, the man is not lacking confidence in his product. The Tesla CEO just appeared on the Artificial Intelligence Podcast and had some very interesting things to say.

How does Tesla CEO Elon Musk compare his company's still-under-development self-driving systems to the competition from Waymo, Cruise Automation and the like? Easy. He believes his company his "vastly ahead of everyone."

This quote comes from Musk's recent appearance on Lex Friedman's Artificial Intelligence Podcast, where Musk spoke about topics ranging from how much longer people will need to keep their hands on the wheel ("At least six months from here") to what question would you ask of a truly sentient artificial agent ("What's outside the simulation?"). 

But the bulk of the conversation centered around Tesla's pursuit of self-driving vehicles. Tesla has long offered a $5,000 "Full Self-Driving Capability" package for its vehicles, promising access to an eventual software update enabling the company's cars to drive themselves.

Musk reiterated this promise, saying: "The hardware currently being produced is capable of full self-driving." However, autonomy won't be an overnight thing where you drive yourself home from work one day and the next morning, after a little OTA action, enjoy a fully automated commute. "As we refine the software, the capabilities will increase dramatically, and then the reliability will increase dramatically, and then it will receive regulatory approval."

This, however, is where Musk's position took an interesting turn. Musk believes autonomy will make a car significantly more valuable, perhaps five times more than a normal, human-driven machine. His conclusion? "If you buy a Tesla today I believe you are buying an appreciating asset, not a depreciating asset." 

Outside of a rare few desirable collector machines and seemingly every Porsche more than 20 years old, few cars actually do wind up appreciating in value significantly. And, very few manufacturers would be bold enough to make that a promise of their new cars.

But back to autonomy, when will the cars start driving themselves? Musk believes you'll need to keep your hands on the wheel for "at least six months from here," raising the question: "How much safer than a person does Autopilot need to be before it's OK to not monitor the car?"

Musk's basic thesis is that, once Autopilot is proven far safer (perhaps by 200%, he notes), then letting a human take over actually becomes risky behavior. He references the early days of elevators, where a human pilot manually directed them to go up or down with a lever.

Now, Musk says, "Nobody wants an elevator operator, because the automated elevator that stops at the floors is much safer."

And what about the competition developing their own self-driving technologies? "To me, right now this seems like game, set and match. I don't want to be complacent or overconfident, but that is literally how it appears right now. I could be wrong, but it appears to be the case that Tesla is vastly ahead of everyone."

With competitors like Waymo racking up real-world miles for its self-driving systems, that's an awfully confident statement to make. As ever, the proof will be in the pudding.