Level 4 autonomous driving will be possible within only 2 years, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk — as quoted by Fortune in a recent interview. This comment comes as something of a contrast to some (but not all) of Musk’s previous statements on the matter — most of which placed fully autonomous driving off a couple of years further into the future.
Despite the apparent conviction that the technology will be possible within only 2 years, Musk did note in the recent interview that it will take (at least) another year in order to get regulators on board for approval.
“The point at which it becomes statistically clear that an autonomous car is safer, I think, regulators will be comfortable with allowing it,” as he put it in the interview.
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During that year, the software will operate in “shadow mode,” comparing what it is programmed to do with what actually happens in real world driving. Using artificial intelligence algorithms, it will teach itself how to deal effectively with what Musk calls “corner cases.” Those are the millions of unknown and unknowable situations that human drivers face every day. The distracted pedestrian who dashes into traffic unexpectedly. The skateboarder who completes a perfect Ollie but lands in the middle of a crosswalk. The moment when a car runs a stop sign or slips sideways on an icy road.
Tesla has already turned its cars into one of the most advanced artificial intelligence networks in history. All of its cars with the Autopilot suite of sensors and software installed learn from their daily driving experiences and share that knowledge with each other. If there is road construction in Terre Haute, your Tesla will know about it, even if you live in Walla Walla and are driving in Indiana for the first time. That’s exactly the kind of learning Musk expects Tesla’s Level 4 systems will do while working in “shadow mode,” waiting for regulators to turn them loose on public roads. He expects the network to provide the data regulators will rely on when deciding Level 4 autonomy is safe.
That’s about the approach that I’ve been expecting the company to end up taking, so I can’t say that I’m surprised by Musk’s comments. It certainly seems to be a sensible approach to getting the regulators on board. Hopefully it works!