Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Elon Musk Once Again Says Tesla Is ‘Very Close’ to Full Autonomy This Year, for Real This Time

Al Root, writing in a Barron’s article confidently titled “Don’t Bet Against Musk”:

Now Musk plans to crack “level 5 autonomous driving” in the coming year. That’s the message Musk delivered Thursday at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in China.

The society of automotive engineers defines five levels of autonomous driving from Level 1 to Level 5. A Level 1 feature is something like parking assistance. Level 5 means the driver — if you can still call the person behind the steering wheel a driver — doesn’t have to do anything in all driving conditions.

This is the exact same tune Musk has been playing for five years: in 2015, he said that fully autonomous vehicles would be on the road within two years. Credulous reporting by financial publications like Barron’s, above, and Forbes to industry sites like Electrek — and even mainstream publications like the BBC — has helped cement Musk’s claim that Level 5 autonomy is just around the corner for years now.

Tesla, of course, continues to market its driver aids as “Autopilot” while insinuating that a car bought from the company today has “Full Self-Driving Capability”. But these are exaggerations that I feel go beyond puffery. The features of the “Autopilot” system are exactly the same as the lane-keeping and radar-guided cruise control that have been available across the automotive industry for years now. For comparison, its namesake technology on aircraft can follow a predetermined flight path with speed and altitude adjustments. The things that make it “full[y] self-driv[ing]”, meanwhile, have fine print that clearly states that these features do not make the car drive itself:

The currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous.

Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik:

I’m pretty comfortable saying that, no, Tesla will not have full Level 5 autonomy solved by the end of the year, especially not with current hardware on their fleet of cars. I do not think we will see a software solution to L5 downloaded to Teslas any time soon.

I don’t really understand why Elon is pushing this narrative, either. Tesla has been saying they’re just about to release “Full Self-Driving” for years now, and they haven’t.

Elon’s remarks both suggest he’s aware of the scale of the problem, yet he seems to trivialize the issues or ignore them, anyway. While I think it’s possible that enough of the issues for Level 5 can be engineered away to be viable, we’re not really close yet.

You said it yourself, Elon: the world is complex and weird. You need to respect that, and be honest about the challenges of truly full autonomy.

I don’t think it is surprising that Musk is not honest about the likelihood of achieving full autonomy soon. I do expect the press to scrutinize such claims and correctly contextualize them, as Torchinsky has done here.