The news: Elon Musk is betting big on driverless cars, so much so that by 2023, he believes, they'll be safer than human drivers.
In a new interview with Bloomberg News, Musk claims that the newly announced Tesla SD will soon have the capability to run on driver-assisted autopilot, and carry a fully autonomous system within "five of six years." He thinks the cars will be hitting the road after two to three years of safety testing, meaning that by 2023, lucky early adopters could be enjoying some free time during their commute.
"Maybe five or six years from now I think we'll be able to achieve true autonomous driving where you could literally get in the car, go to sleep and wake up at your destination," Musk said.
The background: Tesla recently unveiled the SD's autopilot feature, which is not yet fully autonomous but still an impressive technical marvel. It's able to observe the environment to deduce speed limits, switch lanes on its own and stay abreast of other cars, but requires human supervision at all times to avoid accidents. The Verge reports it can even parallel park. To accomplish this, it boasts a number of next-gen features, like 360-degree ultrasonic sonar and radar to map the environment around it and make driving decisions accordingly.
Here's a demo of the technology in action:
But Tesla has much bigger plans than just assisted driving. Dezeen reports that the SD's autopilot features should be ready within "several months," when Musk says the system's driver could summon his vehicle remotely or have it park in a garage automatically. Still, the next step to hands-free vehicles, senior Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer told the Huffington Post, will probably be a "slow progression" rather than an overnight revolution.
Google has tested its own driverless cars on more than one million kilometers of road and may not be far behind Tesla. But it's still testing the system in cars built by other manufacturers, some of whom have conflicting interests, and Google hasn't clarified whether its autonomous guidance systems are intended for its own vehicles or installation in others.
What's in the future: Tesla's approach, pairing a Tesla electric vehicle with an in-house system, could pay off by making it the industry leader. Or it could be overly ambitious; Tesla told the Verge that the base price of the P85D will be a cool $120,170. Meanwhile, competitors like "Audi, BMW, Toyota and others" are trying to design their own systems. At the same time, a number of challenges such as technical hurdles, skittish regulators and mass production capabilities stand between now and the finish line.
But one thing is certain: Driverless care are no longer a matter of if, but when. Musk thinks it'll be within the next decade, but remember that he's one hell of an optimist. In any case, the future of travel seems right on the horizon, and with so many companies competing to get there, it might be sooner than we think.