Elon Musk: Self-Driving Cars Will Take Over the Roads in Less Than 30 Years

Wednesday, 18 March 2015 - 10:19AM
Wednesday, 18 March 2015 - 10:19AM
During an interview with Nvidia CEO Hen Hsun Huang at the 2015 GPU Tech Conference, Elon Musk was incredibly optimistic about the future of self-driving cars. Musk confidently addressed a few big questions about autonomous cars, and among other things, claimed that self-driving cars could be the norm well within three decades.

How long will it take?

Technically, self-driving cars (made by Google) are already on the road. However, these cars have a lot of limitations that make them only selectively useful. The self-driving cars cannot handle rain or snow, spot potholes or humans signaling it to stop, recognize temporary traffic signals, and, most importantly, navigate parking lots.

Musk's vision is one with more widespread practical applications, allowing driverless cars to replace all other vehicles on the road. According to Musk, the technology needed is already in the works; "I almost view it as a solved problem. We know exactly what to do, and we'll be there in a few years," he states. A few years seems rather optimistic, but, rest assured, technology development is not the only part of the process. In Musk's view,"it's just going to become normal. Like an elevator."

But, he qualified, "we're a very long way from that because there's always going to be some - for a very long time there will be some legacy cars on the road. And it is important to just appreciate the size of the automotive industrial base... The total number of cars and trucks on the road is two billion and climbing... The capacity of car/ truck production is about 100 million a year. So if tomorrow all cars were autonomous, it would take 20 years to replace the fleet." Combining this 20-year figure with the "few years" it will take to build the first self-driving car, we could be looking at complete road takeover in about 30 years. 

What sorts of technology will it use?

"You kind of need the hardware foundation, the sensory computing foundation, and then you can just keep updating software," says Musk. He thinks that this kind of tech can easily be developed from the current hardware, "We now have active cruise control, we use radar and camera fusion to track the car in front of you... it looks at brake lights, so it anticipates when the brakes are active... it's going to get smarter and smarter even with the current hardware suite."

The current hardware suite, by the way, "is 360-degree ultrasonic sensors that go up to just over 5 meters. There's a forward camera and a forward radar." And even with just those attachments, there's already been huge advances in what would be considered autonomous driving. "We can definitely make the car steer itself on a freeway and do lane changes," notes Musk. 

What challenges does Tesla face?

Although it seems that current technology development looks very promising for a future of self-driving cars, there are, of course, a few kinks to work out. To start with, the current hardware suite is not equipped to handle environments in which the car would need to drive at middling speeds. It can handle slow or freeway driving, but has trouble with the speeds that would be required in a suburban environment. 

"Right now it's fairly easy to deal with things that are below 5 to 10 miles per hour, because we can do that with the ultrasonics - we just make sure it doesn't hit anything, because you can always brake... Then from, let's say 10 miles an hour to 50 miles and hour - that area in complex suburban environments - that's where you get a lot of unexpected things happening. Let's say there's a road closure of manhole cover open, children playing is a big issue, bicycles... once you get about 50 miles per hour and you're in a freeway environment, it gets easier again... In order to solve that you need a bigger sensor suite and you need more computing power."

How dangerous will it really be?

Danger in self-driving cars comes in two forms - general safety of the system itself, and the risk of the technology being compromised. As far as the system itself, he believes there will be an uphill battle with the regulators to prove with certainty that the systems are safer than human driving: "The way the cars work right now, every system in the car, it's assumed, could have a mechanical failure of some kind, or a fundamental logic failure. You can always overwhelm the braking with your foot or overwhelm the steering wheel with your hands. But when there isn't a steering wheel or a brake pedal or something, then it's really, really dangerous"

As far as the security of the technology, Musk seems slightly more blasé. "Even as it is right now, where we spend most of our time on is that it's very difficult to do a multi-car hack. If you have direct access to a car, just like you've got direct access to a computer, you can do a lot of things to it, but that's less of a concern than somebody being able to hack an arbitrary car or multiple cars... And then certain parts of the car, at a very fundamental level - like the drive unit controller, or steering controller - have an additional level of security. So someone may be able to hack something thats cosmetic, but it's much harder to hack something that's actually physically dangerous. You may be able to display a funny message or something, but you won't be able to control the steering or the motor."

So there you have it. Safe, autonomous cars fitted with ultrasonics and radar will (hopefully) take over the roads in about 2040. It's weird to think about, even for Musk, who wraps up his discussion by reflecting "It seems strange that we'd be alive in this time."

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