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Tesla says totally self-driving cars likely aren't happening in 2021

An Autopilot engineer told California regulators Tesla may not achieve Level 5 autonomy, despite what CEO Elon Musk predicted in January.

The goal was a lofty one.

A Tesla engineer has admitted to California regulators the company probably won't have a completely self-driving car ready for operation this year. That's despite CEO Elon Musk saying during a January earnings call the company was "highly confident" it would achieve full autonomy in 2021.

The admission comes from a document of exchanges dated May 6 between the California Department of Motor Vehicles and CJ Moore, an Autopilot engineer working for Tesla, released via the legal transparency group PlainSite. "Tesla indicated that Elon is extrapolating on the rates of improvement when speaking about [Level 5] capabilities," part of the memo from the DMV read. "Tesla couldn't say if the rate of improvement would make it to L5 by end of calendar year."

Level 5 capabilities refers to a fully autonomous car on the SAE scale of autonomy. Anything Tesla currently employs today, from Autopilot to the "Full Self-Driving" beta, registers as a Level 2 driver-assist system -- not a self-driving car. The memo added Tesla remains "firmly" in L2 technology.

Tesla does not operate a public relations department to field requests for comment. The California DMV did not immediately return a request for comment.

The automaker continues to take a unique approach to realizing the goal of a truly autonomous car: While other companies and rival automakers focus on lidar to help a car "see," Tesla hopes a neural network combined with sensors, radar and cameras will create a smart car good enough to drive itself.