Getting to autonomous driving "is much easier than you would think," said Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO Elon Musk during an onstage interview at a NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA) graphical processor conference on Tuesday. And Musk said that his Silicon Valley-based Tesla will be the leader in the category, at least when it comes to "autonomous cars that you can actually buy."
Tesla's late but formidable leap toward autonomous driving
In October 2014, a few weeks before Tesla unveiled its dual-motor Model S and announced advanced autopilot hardware would now come standard on its sedan, Musk told CNNMoney he believed autonomous cars will "definitely be a reality."
When Tesla initially launched the Model S in 2012, the company lagged behind peers for autopilot features in both safety and convenience categories. But this changed quickly last year when Tesla began delivering Model S vehicles equipped with forward radar, 12 long-range ultrasonic sensors, and a forward-looking camera. The new sensors, after a series of software updates, will enable complete hands- and feet-off driving from highway on-ramp to highway off-ramp.
Tesla's autopilot suite includes typical safety and convenience features found in other comparably priced luxury sedans plus a few that take machine-operated driving to the next level, including automatic lane changes requiring only a tap on the turn signal from the driver and the ability for owners to summon their Tesla to their location on private property.
Musk explained at the NVIDIA conference that Tesla sees a clear path to autonomous driving.
"[W]e know exactly what to do and we'll get there in a few years," Musk said.
Indeed, Musk is so confident in the future of autonomous vehicles that he believes they will be much safer than cars driven by humans. Musk went as far as to say that driven cars could eventually be viewed as "too dangerous" and even "outlawed."
Shortly after the interview, Musk clarified how he feels about human drivers on Twitter, saying Tesla supports human driving.
However, when self-driving cars become safer than human-driven cars, the public may outlaw the latter. Hopefully not.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 17, 2015
Musk admits that Tesla vehicles will need more hardware to enable autonomous driving. For instance, he explained at the conference that the current hardware doesn't support safe autonomous driving in all situations, specifically citing a potential scenario of having to avoid children playing in the street when the car is driving 30 mph. He said Tesla vehicles will need more sensors and computing power, mentioning that what NVIDIA is doing with its Tegra processor is important for enabling autonomous driving.
With its Tegra, NVIDIA is aiming to give cars the ability to recognize images from live footage and practice accident avoidance with the help of deep-learning algorithms capable of handling complex situations.
Pairing deep learning with autonomous driving, "we can have the car understand all the subtle nuances to mirror human drivers," senior NVIDIA director of automotive Danny Shapiro told The Register during a press question-and-answer session at NVIDIA's conference.
In his on-stage interview, Musk emphasized the importance of being able to continually upload new software so that it's possible to steadily improve vehicles' autonomous and autopilot features. Of course, Tesla has already mastered this aspect with its over-the-air software updates.
If Musk's vision of the future of driving is correct, we'll soon be ushered into the age of autonomous vehicles. Expect debates about human driving rights, vehicle ownership versus sharing, and whether or not humans will even need to be present in a vehicle.
Daniel Sparks owns shares of Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends NVIDIA and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.