Musk says Apple may have missed the boat on autonomous cars

Tesla's CEO says the iPhone maker should have gotten into the industry sooner, adding that he "hopes it works out for them."

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Elon Musk thinks Apple may be too far behind the curve on autonomous cars to catch up to his company.

Tesla's CEO said Wednesday that while he welcomes the competition, he doesn't see the iPhone maker having a vehicle in production for at least another four years.

"I think they should have embarked on this project sooner," Musk said during an onstage interview at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. "I don't think they'll be in production sooner until 2020."

Musk also cast some doubt on Apple's potential for success, saying, "I think it's great they are doing this -- I hope it works out."

While Google has been very open about its testing of driverless vehicles, there's been no official word from Apple about its plans for any type of car.

Autonomous cars have captured the fascination of the car industry, with many automotive companies such as Nissan and Audi, as well as tech firms including Google and Nvidia, working on the idea. The concept has the potential to save lives, but for now automakers are only taking small steps to add more automation into vehicles, such as parallel parking, computer-initiated emergency braking and warnings about shifting lanes.

"I think we're basically less than two years away from complete autonomy," he said, adding that it could be a few more years after that until cars win regulatory approval. "Because [regulators] also want to see billions of miles of data that it is statistically true that autonomous driving is safer."

Interest in the concept has exploded in popularity in recent years.

"There have been so many announcements about autonomous startups that I'm waiting for my mom to start one. Mom, you too?" he joked.

Musk also had mixed praise for Google, saying that the Internet giant has shown the potential of autonomous transportation. "But they're not a car company," he said. "They would potentially license their technology. I wouldn't say Google is a competitor because they're not a car company."

Musk also warned that some newcomers might be unprepared for the industry.

"The sheer scale of automotive manufacturing is hard to imagine until you see the plants," he said. "The size of the industrial infrastructure is astonishing."

Musk also gave a hint at the progress on Tesla's Model 3, saying that the design process is almost complete for the automaker's first mass-market car.

"Pencils down in three weeks," he said. "If there are ideas for new things, we'll have future [designs and models]."