Tesla hosted its Autonomy Day in Palo Alto, California on Monday. During the event held for company investors, Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk claimed the pure-electric automaker would have over one million autonomous taxis — with no one in them — on the road by 2020.
“I feel very confident predicting autonomous robotaxis for Tesla next year,” Musk said. “Sometimes I am not on time, but I get it done,” Musk later added.
Musk did point out that the Tesla robotaxis won’t be nationwide, as such driverless technology is not legal in all jurisdictions.
“I am confident we will have at least regulatory approval somewhere, literally next year,” Musk said.
How is such a feat possible? Well, according to Musk, “All you need to do is improve the software.”
Characteristically, Musk was short on details. At least with this dubious claim, Musk was careful enough to give the caveat that he might not meet his lofty 2020 target.
Let’s not forget that Tesla’s Model X SUV was two years late. Virtually all Model 3 trim level deliveries were behind schedule, too. What’s more, Musk said in 2016 that he’d complete a handsfree trip across the U.S. in 2017. He’s yet to make such a voyage.
Timeline aside, Tesla simply doesn’t have the technology in its cars to hit the 2020 driverless robotaxis claim. Unlike many of its competitors in the automated driving space, Tesla vehicles don’t have high-definition maps or lidar. What’s more, they do not have redundant safety systems.
Amusingly, Musk spoke to Tesla’s lacking LIDAR at Autonomy Day. “LIDAR is a fool’s errand … Anyone relying on lidar is doomed,” Musk said. “Expensive sensors that are unnecessary. It’s like having a whole bunch of expensive appendices. Like one appendix is bad, well how about a whole bunch of them? That’s ridiculous. You’ll see.”
The Reality Of Autonomy
We’ll dig into Musk’s argument against LIDAR in another post. Going by the standards of virtually every other brand working in automated driving, Teslas aren’t technologically prepared to tackle driverless operation.
Right now, even with its Autopilot system engaged, Tesla drivers are warned to keep their hands on the wheel, stating, “Current Autopilot features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.” So, given that, it seems unlikely that Tesla’s tech is ready to be safely implemented without anyone onboard.
Tesla’s Autopilot, despite its marketing, is essentially just elevated, more powerful adaptive cruise control, which is an extension of automatic emergency braking. While those features do make a vehicle technically safer, they’re not 100% effective. What’s more, those technologies are designed to assist in driving not to entirely assume responsibility of driving. And as we’ve seen with the infamous and deadly crashes involving Autopilot-enabled vehicles, people are asking more of the feature than it is capable of doing.
Speaking of safety, Tesla previously claimed that Autopilot-equipped vehicles are 40% safer than those without it. That safety assertion was later debunked by Quality Control Systems. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is reviewing QCS’ findings.
What Musk is proposing is Level 4 automated driving. Mike Ramsey, senior research analysis at Gartner, told Ride that he doesn’t foresee vehicles equipped with Level 3 automated driving systems composing more than 1% of new-car sales by 2025 — let alone a million robotaxi Teslas by next year.
“Fully autonomous vehicles will not exist for normal people, even in that timeframe,” Ramsey said. “In six years, the only autonomous vehicles around will be shuttles and limited deployment of over-the-road trucks.”
Of course, Ramsey is looking through the glass of responsible automated driving technology deployment. Since Tesla has been infamously beta testing Autopilot on the public, a liability virtually no other automaker would take on, it’s plausible it could launch driverless cars long before they’re safe.
No matter if or when Tesla does try to put robotaxis on the road, it won’t be next year, and there certainly won’t be a million of them.