San Francisco: Billionaire Elon Musk moved the world one step closer to robotic vehicles, saying every car and SUV that his Tesla Motors Inc. is currently building will roll out of the factory with all the equipment needed to be fully self-driving.
Drivers can’t let go of the steering wheel permanently—at least not yet—but that’s a goal after a series of software refinements that will be made over time, Chief executive officer Musk told journalists on a call Wednesday evening. All Tesla vehicles being produced will have eight cameras and 12 sensors giving full 360-degree visibility, backed by a computer with 40 times the processing power of previous models, the company said in a statement.
The announcement moves Tesla beyond the driver-assistance feature called Autopilot that has been on all its vehicles built since October 2014—more than 114,000 autos worldwide. The plan may bring added scrutiny to all automakers’ plans for self-driving vehicles, which are moving toward the marketplace faster than regulators can keep pace. Ford Motor Co. has announced plans to sell robotic taxis to ride-hailing services in 2021.
“It’s a big up-front commitment to self-driving technology that other automakers may not be willing to make at this point,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Kelley Blue Book.
Every vehicle built “will have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver,” the company said in its statement. “This system provides a view of the world that a driver alone cannot access, seeing in every direction simultaneously and on wavelengths that go far beyond the human senses.”
Musk says the latest iteration can bring added safety, and that buyers will have a choice for how much autonomy they want to give their vehicle.
“Full self-driving will take care of more complex situations in urban environments,” Musk said on the call. “There are two options people can pick in buying a car: an improved version of Autopilot or full self-driving.”
Autopilot has been under scrutiny after a fatal crash in Florida on 7 May prompted probes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. After two other non-fatal accidents, Consumer Reports called on Tesla to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and to change the Autopilot name to avoid confusion. Dutch regulators have also raised concerns, and Germany has asked the company to stop using the term.
Model 3 included
The new technologies will also be available on the Model 3, a more affordable Tesla than the Model S sedan or Model X sport utility vehicle. The Model 3, which is supposed to start production in late 2017, fulfills the Palo Alto, California-based company’s longstanding vision of accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable transportation.
Musk first revealed the Model 3 in March at Tesla’s design studio in Hawthorne, California. He said then that the driver-assist Autopilot features would be standard on the car, which also would have a continuous plane of glass to give the cabin an expansive feeling of openness. And, in a 30 March tweet, he hinted that there was more to come: “Tomorrow is Part 1 of the Model 3 unveil. Part two, which takes things to another level, will be closer to production.”
The tweet prompted speculation that “level” refers to the auto industry’s scale for vehicle automation, with Level 0 being none and Level 5 as a fully self-driving car. Tesla’s current Autopilot system would be classified as Level 2, with the expectation that the human driver is consistently monitoring the environment and is prepared to engage as needed.
“Tesla is not saying they have the capability to do Level 4 autonomy right now -- they are saying they are building out the hardware for Level 4 when the software is ready,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who has written extensively on driverless car liability. “At some point they will flip a switch and the world will look different. They haven’t flipped a switch yet, but they are building out the wiring.”
Tesla now makes the Model S sedan and Model X sport utility vehicle on a shared assembly line in Fremont, California, and in addition to the upcoming Model 3 has said it will eventually add a semi-truck and transit bus. The company also makes the Powerwall battery for homes and the larger Powerpacks for commercial businesses and utilities.
Customers earlier this year stood in long lines at Tesla stores around the world to place $1,000 reservations, giving Musk an “iPhone moment” that is unprecedented in the auto industry. About 373,000 pre-orders for the Model 3 have been placed, according to figures Tesla hasn’t updated since May. The car will seat five adults and is expected to begin at $35,000 before incentives. Bloomberg