Tesla is ‘Very Close' to Level-5 Autonomous Driving, Chief Executive Elon Musk Says
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has designated five levels of autonomous driving in an effort to clear up the many public misconceptions of exactly what a self-driving car is capable of in the real world. Achieving Level-5 is the ultimate goal for developers of self-driving vehicles, which means that the vehicle can handle "all conditions" it encounters without any human intervention—ever.
Now Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, who is known to exaggerate the capabilities of the company's electric vehicles from time to time, says that Tesla is "close" to achieving Level-5 autonomous driving.
Musk made the comments in remarks made via a video message at the opening of Shanghai's annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC).
"I'm extremely confident that level 5 or essentially complete autonomy will happen and I think will happen very quickly," Musk said at the event. However, skeptics believe this is still years away.
Currently, the auto industry has achieved only Level 2 autonomy, which is classified as "partial automation." This means that a human driver must be behind the wheel to monitor the vehicle at all times and be ready to take over immediately if necessary. None of these systems are considered to be "self-driving", despite any claims to the contrary.
Some examples of Level 2 autonomous systems are adaptive cruise control, which handles the braking and accelerating, while also keeping the vehicle centered in a highway lane. Tesla's Autopilot and General Motors SuperCruise are considered to be Level-2 autonomous systems.
The SAE considers that the human is actually in control with all Level-2 systems, regardless of what people or automakers claim to be a "self-driving" system.
Level-3 systems are much better and can handle stop and go driving, such as rush hour traffic on the freeway, maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle ahead while handling the steering and braking duties.
The SAE has determined that a human driver behind the wheel is "not in control" when a Level-3 system is engaged. The driver is required to take over in certain situations when prompted.
Level 4 and 5 however, are considered to be "fully automated" meaning that humans are not in control and don't need to be under all conditions. Vehicles without steering wheels or brake pedals are examples of these systems, although these vehicles are not allowed on public roads since a regulatory framework for their deployment of vehicles without human controls has not been established yet.
GM for example, wants to build a version of the Chevy Bolt EV without a steering wheel or brake pedals for its planned robotaxi service, but has not received government approval yet. This version of the Bolt will be considered Level-4, and since it won't require human intervention to navigate.
GM's request is unprecedented and it might be some time before we see cars on public roads without any human controls. Still, Musk is optimistic that Tesla can achieve Level-5 by the end of the year, although this type of system appearing in a Tesla vehicle is highly unlikely in the near term.
"I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level-5 autonomy complete this year," Musk said.
Automakers are investing billions in the development of autonomous vehicles. Waymo for example, is planning to launch its own robotaxi service using fleets of driverless vehicles.
Waymo spun out of Google's self-driving car project and has been working on the technology since at least 2009 and is widely considered to be the industry leader. Its fleet of autonomous vehicles have traveled over 20 million miles on public roads, all without a major accident.
However, Waymo is still far from achieving Level 4 or 5 autonomy and no government regulations currently exist governing the deployment of highly automated commercial vehicles on public roads.
Another hurdle is public acceptance. Right now, many people don't trust fully autonomous vehicles, and many others have reservations about sharing the roads with them.
Tesla also said its developing new vehicle cooling systems in order to install the higher performance processors required to support higher levels of autonomy, Musk said.
In 2019, chipmaker Nvidia announced the world's first commercially available Level 2+ automated driving system called NVIDIA DRIVE AutoPilot. It integrates breakthrough AI technologies that will enable human supervised self-driving vehicles to go into production, the company said. Nvidia plans to supply this hardware to automakers.
If any global automaker can achieve Level-5 autonomy there is a strong possibility it will be Tesla though.
The California electric car company has become the world's most valuable automaker as its shares surged to record highs, taking the top spot from Toyota in just over a decade. Tesla market cap now exceeds $255 billion, so its anyone's guess what Tesla has in store for the next decade.
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