Tesla Motors has somehow managed to make a car that's miles ahead of anything else by virtue of its innovative technology. Instead of being content with that, Elon Musk has decided that the next step is to go autonomous. Or at least, mostly autonomous.
As with most of Elon Musk's awesomely crazy ideas, most of what we have at this point is a big idea. From the Financial Times:
“We should be able to do 90 percent of miles driven within three years,” [Musk] said. Mr Musk would not reveal further details of Tesla’s autonomy project, but said it was “internal development” rather than technology being supplied by another company. “It’s not speculation,” he said.
Musk went on to say that he doesn't believe that fully autonomous cars are quite feasible yet: "It’s incredibly hard to get the last few percent." In other words, getting to 90 percent autonomy takes some level of effort, and getting to 95 percent autonomy might take the same amount of effort as getting to 90 percent. Ditto for 97 percent from 95 percent, and as for complete autonomy, well... That's a Google-sized challenge that even Google and traditional car manufacturers together might not be up for quite yet, according to Reuters:
"One person familiar with Google’s efforts said carmakers had been hesitant about adopting the Google technology because of the potential liabilities from accidents involving robot cars. Google would not comment."
Whether or not Google comments, liability is a huge issue with autonomous cars, and nobody wants to be the first company to put one in the hands of a consumer only to shortly thereafter be the first company to be sued if the car has an accident in autonomous mode. The fact is that robot cars could be much better drivers than most humans are, but even if we all accept that, the robot cars (and their makers) will inevitably be blamed whenever something goes wrong. Even if autonomous cars (say) halve the total number of traffic accidents, the headlines (not our headlines) will just as inevitably be about robots getting in lots of accidents.
What we could really use is some company to say something like, "damn the torpedos, full speed ahead" and just go for it. And that's why we're excited about this announcement from Tesla, even if "we want to do this" is a rather long way from "we've done this, and here it is."
We'll keep you updated.