Tesla cars could be fully autonomous in 2017, Elon Musk says

Elon Musk says that new hardware and software packages should make all new Teslas fully autonomous by the end of 2017, accelerating Silicon Valley's race toward self-driving cars.

Benoit Tessier/ Reuters/ File
The Tesla Model X car is displayed on media day at the Paris auto show in Paris, France, on September 29, 2016.

Tesla Motors chief executive Elon Musk announced on Wednesday that his company is taking the next step towards creating fully autonomous vehicles, a move that suggests that Tesla could win the race to build the first true self-driving car.

New Tesla Model X and Model S vehicles may roll off the assembly line with all the hardware bells and whistles – from additional sensors to faster radar – to one day be fully self-driving. But with safety regulations lagging behind, some observers wonder whether the United States is ready.

"It will basically be a supercomputer in a car," Mr. Musk said, according to the Associated Press. The new technology could raise the cost of purchasing a Tesla vehicle by about $8,000, but for that price, new owners will have a vehicle with 40 times the computing power of older Tesla models.

By the end of 2017, Musk says, a Tesla owner should be able to drive from California to New York without ever touching the wheel. The software to make this possible, however, is still in development.

More work must be done before safety regulators allow any autonomous Teslas loose on the road, however. At present, rigorous testing procedures prevent Tesla from making current models even more autonomous than its current Autopilot system.

In September, federal regulators released new guidelines for automakers who seek to develop autonomous vehicles. Those guidelines include a 15-point safety standard that includes provisions for passenger safety and information protection.

Nevertheless, car buyers remain wary of autonomous vehicles, especially following a Tesla crash in Florida this May that resulted in one fatality.

"The No. 1 reason why people say they are unlikely to buy an autonomous vehicle is that they don't feel that they're safe," Moe Kelley, the director of the consulting firm Altman Vilandrie and Company, told The Christian Science Monitor's Passcode earlier this year.

A Kelley Blue Book survey this year found that many older drivers, in particular, feel uncomfortable with fully autonomous cars, making level four vehicles the most appealing to buyers. Carmakers define level four autonomous vehicles as cars that are fully self-driving, but also provide owners with the option to drive.

While Musk maintains that Teslas are much safer than human drivers, many potential buyers are still dubious, with concerns ranging from ethics (such as whether the car should prioritize protecting its driver, or pedestrians) to cybersecurity.

"The worst case scenario is that a hacker will be able to drive someone off the road," Mr. Kelley told the Monitor. "People also fear for their privacy with automated vehicles. Even minor hacks that allow someone's movements to be tracked over the internet are scary to many consumers as well."

Musk expects new Teslas to be fully autonomous by the end of 2017, but some say that the Tesla founder's timelines have been unrealistic in the past.

"There's also a risk that by the time all these self-driving features are fully tested and activated, other manufacturers may be ready to roll out more advanced hardware with better capabilities," Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at Edmunds.com, told the Associated Press.

Nearly three dozen companies are testing and developing autonomous car technology, as the Monitor reported in August. Ford is pushing to have fully autonomous cars serve as fleets for ride-hailing and delivery services by 2021, with hopes to sell to individual buyers later in the 2020s. Other companies competing include Uber, Mercedes-Benz, Google, Apple, BMW, and Volvo. 

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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