Elon Musk: Human drivers may soon be 'outlawed'

At Nvidia’s annual conference for developers, Elon Musk sat down to explain his beliefs about the advancing technology in driverless cars and how they could take over roadways in the very near future.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX, introduces the SpaceX Dragon V2 spaceship at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. on May 29. Musk says SpaceX has a 50 percent chance of landing a rocket on the next launch.

Elevator operators used to do more than man the Haunted House ride at Disney. They were once an actual requirement for a lift to move. But as technology advanced through the 20th century, people began to trust the machine to travel on its own. This is how Elon Musk sees the future of autonomous cars.

At Nvidia’s annual GPU Technology Conference for developers in San Jose, Calif., the chief executive officer of Tesla and SpaceX sat down for an interview with Jen-Hsun Huang, the chipmaker’s co-founder and CEO.

"They used to have elevator operators, and then we developed some simple circuitry to have elevators just automatically come to the floor that you're at," Mr. Musk said in front of 4,000 attendees. "The car is going to be just like that."

As driverless technology improves, Musk believes human error will become too hazardous in an autonomous world. “In the distant future, people may outlaw driven cars because it’s too dangerous," he said. "You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.”

But as Musk went on to say in the interview, there are still issues with the overall technology.

One of the main problems that arises with self-driving vehicles is when they reach the 15 to 50 m.p.h. range. Autonomous cars are not currently sophisticated enough to handle the unpredictable landscapes of cities and towns. "That's where you get a lot of unexpected things," Musk explained, citing everything from open manhole covers to bicyclists. “It’s the intermediate that’s hard.”

Another huge problem is the security of the technology. Tesla has “put a lot of effort” into thwarting hackers, which is a big concern as the world embraces the “Internet of Things.” 

Musk went on to say in an interview with The Verge that this will not be an easy transition. "I think it is important to appreciate the size of the automotive industrial base," Musk said. "There's 2 billion of them." With capacity of auto production limited to about 100 million new vehicles annually, Musk does not see a completely driverless reality for another 20 years.

Tesla has already introduced certain autonomous features to its D series of the Model S sedan. The car can park itself and has a computer that can read speed-limit signs and helps drivers avoid wrecks, but, according to Bloomberg, the earliest we can expect to see a fully autonomous car from Tesla is 2023.

Nvidia, which specializes in making graphics processing chips, is a company looking to expand into the driverless car market with Tesla. The electric car maker's Model S already uses two the company’s chips in its computers. 

At the conference, Nvidia announced that its self-driving vehicle computer, Drive PX, will be available in May and will cost $10,000. The technology was first introduced in January at the Consumer Electronics Show, and is “designed to slip the power of deep neural networks into real-world cars.” Using a style of artificial intelligence called deep learning, the company is looking to close the technology gap to make driverless cars of the future a reality.

Though Musk recently was quoted as saying that artificial intelligence is like “summoning the demon,” he does not believe self-driving cars will summon the same type of beast. “I don’t think we have to worry about autonomous cars, because that’s sort of like a narrow form of AI,” Musk said at the event. 

“We’ll take autonomous cars for granted in quite a short time,” said Musk, who says he hopes to see Tesla become the leader in driverless vehicles. “I almost view it as a solved problem. We know what to do, and we’ll be there in a few years."

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