Elon Musk plans robotaxis from Tesla by 2020

by Lawrence Allan, Autocar UK & Autocar Pro News Desk 23 Apr 2019


Tesla CEO Elon Musk yesterday laid out another series of ambitious targets while hosting a Tesla Autonomy Investor Day. 

These included more details of a plan to profitability for the American electric vehicle (EV) maker during a period of additional financial turmoil. There is concern within Wall Street that demand for Teslas has slowed after an initial global rush this year, while short-term problems such as arranging successful deliveries globally has proved to be a sticking point.

Musk forecasted that the company will become 'extremely cashflow-positive' once it has established a network of 'autonomous robotaxis', beginning next year. He admitted that Tesla 'won’t have regulatory approval everywhere' to run such a network but said that he was 'confident that Tesla will have at least regulatory approval somewhere, literally next year'.

Acknowledging criticism of Tesla sometimes failing to deliver on its promises, Musk said: “All these things, I said we’d do them. We did it. We’re going to do the robotaxi things too. The only criticism – it’s a fair one – sometimes they’re not on time”. 

The reference may be to Musk’s frequent optimism for the advent of full autonomy, which appears to have been pushed back. Last month, Tesla started shipping cars that are said to be capable of fully autonomous driving, thanks to new hardware designed in-house. 

By the end of 2019, Tesla will reportedly have a wireless software update for that system ready, with a target to ensure the system is “safe” by the middle of 2020. Musk promised analysts back in January that the Full Self-Driving system would be granted for permission towards the end of this year. He added yesterday: "probably two years from now, we will make a car with no steering wheel or pedals".

If regulators can be successfully convinced of the system’s safety, permission to launch an autonomous taxi service could be granted for the end of 2020.

The taxi fleet will be largely made up of customers cars, with Tesla aiming to rent them out to users of a ride-hailing smartphone app. However, it’s expected that a number of new models will need to be brought in if the platform increases in scale during that time.

During yesterday's event, Musk also said that Tesla plans in the near future to allow an 'aggressive mode' for the Autopilot system that will introduce a 'slight chance of a fender bender', claiming this is 'the only way to navigate Los Angeles traffic'. 

Warwick Business School & JLR warn about AI limits 
However, research from Warwick Business School and Jaguar Land Rover warns the Artificial Intelligence required for autonomous cars to co-exist with human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, is pushing the frontiers of what is scientifically possible.

They argue that while there appears to have been “impressive progress” in cars sensing their surroundings, the challenge of interacting with other road users has scarcely been addressed.

This could be the “decisive limiting factor” in developing autonomous vehicles, they conclude in their paper, Negotiating the Traffic: Can Cognitive Science Help Make Autonomous Vehicles a Reality?

Nick Chater, professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, said: “Alan Turing famously challenged future generations to create a machine that would be indistinguishable from a person through the medium of written language.

“The future of fully autonomous vehicles depends on science meeting a similar challenge – creating computer systems that drive in a way that blends seamlessly and safely with human drivers.

"Negotiating the traffic’ is not merely a figure of speech. It involves an actual process of tacit negotiation with other road users in a safety critical environment. It is crucial that everyone reaches the same – or at least compatible – agreements to prevent a potential accident.

“Creating a machine that can replicate that process involves addressing fundamental questions at the frontiers of cognitive science. Human interactions are so effortless that we are unaware of the complex reasoning involved.

“The rate of progress on this challenge may prove a decisive limiting factor in the development of autonomous vehicles.”

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