Tesla’s most important products this year and next will not be cars, Chief Executive Elon Musk said, but software that drives them autonomously and a humanoid robot that the company hopes will help in its factories.
“I would be shocked if we don’t achieve safer-than-human fully autonomous driving this year. I would be shocked,” Musk said, predicting that fully autonomous driving will become “the most important source of profitability for Tesla.”
“It’s very good from a financial point of view,” he said, saying that the application of robotaxi increases a vehicle’s utility by five times.
Tesla uses cameras and artificial intelligence, eschewing other technologies like radar and coping that rivals like Waymo are utilizing.
“You don’t just need to see a person, you need to do it with 99.999999999% reliability. Even running someone over once is not an acceptable response,” said Austin Russell, chief executive of systems maker Luminar Luminar.
Some Tesla car owners have purchased $12,000 bundles of self-driving features in the hope that technology that can completely dispense with a driver is close to completion.
Currently, 60,000 Tesla drivers are testing the latest version of the company’s autonomous driving software, a scale that other driverless driving software companies only dream of.
Philip Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who works on the safety of autonomous vehicles, said a big problem is that, at scale, unusual cases can constantly arise.
“Without a human driver to handle safety in new situations, machine learning has not yet been taught, it is very difficult to ensure safety in a fully automated vehicle,” he said.
Even if the technology works, Tesla will undergo stricter scrutiny from regulators before deploying fleets of robotaxis. US automotive safety regulators have opened an investigation into Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system after accidents involving the brand’s cars and parked emergency vehicles.
Musk also said engineers are working to launch a humanoid robot next year, called Optimus, that will be able to transport items in a factory in the short term.
“In repetitive and dangerous tasks, using a humanoid robot is exactly the wrong strategy,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
But Musk said the robot could be more important than cars. “It has the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business over time,” said the executive.