Tesla will release fully self-driving cars in 2019 — with a big asterisk

tesla model s

Tesla remains on-track to release a fully self-driving car before the end of 2019, company co-founder and CEO Elon Musk confirmed. The feature will represent a major milestone in the company’s quest for autonomy, but it will come with an equally major catch.

“I think we will be feature complete, full self-driving, this year — meaning the car will be able to find you in a parking lot, pick you up, and take you all the way to your destination without an intervention — this year. I would say I am of certain of that. That is not a question mark,” Musk announced on the Ark Invest podcast. He’s confident in his team’s work because he personally oversees the development of Tesla’s Autopilot technology.

His comments make it sound like Tesla has cracked the code of autonomous driving, but that’s not entirely accurate. The self-driving vehicles Tesla deploys on public roads by the end of 2019 will still require a human driver behind the wheel. “People sometimes will extrapolate that to mean now it works with 100 percent certainty, requires no observation, perfectly. This is not the case,” Musk clarified.

He added regulators could force Tesla owners to remain alert even if the hardware and software work perfectly. The company needs to convince lawmakers in every town, county, state, and in the White House that its technology is safe to use by ordinary motorists, with or without oversight. That’s easier said than done; just ask Audi. The German firm offers level three autonomous technology called Traffic Jam Pilot on the A8 in select global markets, including Germany, but it decided not to offer the feature on the American-spec model because doing so would have required slashing through jungles of red tape.

Tesla’s advantage is data — and lots of it. “The reason Tesla is making rapid progress is because we have vastly more data, and this is increasing exponentially,” Musk told Ark Invest, a firm that invests in his company. Tesla receives and analyzes the anonymous data generated when customers engage Autopilot.

The California-based firm will race ahead of its rivals if it achieves what Musk promised, though it runs the risk of summoning regulators’ dark cloud of disapproval if it calls its cars fully self-driving while simultaneously reminding owners that they need to remain aware and alert. Even if it’s ready but not legal by the end of 2019, the technology will provide the foundation Tesla needs to achieve true autonomy, Musk noted.

“My guess as to when we would think it is safe for somebody to essentially fall asleep and wake up at their destination? Probably towards the end of next year. That is when I think it would be safe enough for that,” he opined. Time will tell whether lawmakers will agree with his assessment.

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