We've all heard about the amazing potential of self-driving cars, and several automakers have predicted that they will have autonomous models on the road by 2020. But we also spent years hearing that by 2010, we'd have hover cars and moon colonies.
In this video segment, Sean O'Reilly and Vincent Shen talk about how feasible mass adoption of self-driving car technology actually is, and where the technology is today. Also, they look at Tesla Motors (TSLA -4.59%), a company that's really pushing the limits with its autonomous driving features, and discuss whether its two-year timeline for deploying a fully self-driving vehicle is realistic or not.
Listen to the full podcast by clicking here. A transcript follows the video.
This podcast was recorded on Feb. 11, 2016.
Sean O'Reilly: So, how far along is this technology? Is this going to ... you kind of know what I'm getting at, because in the 1970s, we were told we would have moon colonies by now. You know what I mean? (laughs)
Vincent Shen: Of course, I understand. In terms of rubber meeting the road, right now, one company that I feel is pushing the limits in terms of what is possible with autonomous vehicles, and pushing the boundaries in terms of actually releasing these features and allowing owners of their cars to use them, is Tesla Motors. Tesla, through, I think it's their Model S and X, they have their autopilot, which has some really incredible features.
O'Reilly: Now, that just works on the freeway right now, right?
Shen: Yeah. So, just to give you an idea: A lot of cars released these days have sensors that might warn you that there's something in your blind spot, or they might have adaptive headlights, so as you turn, the headlights will adjust to better illuminate your path. I feel like the autopilot program takes it to the next level. So, you have automatic steering. As you mentioned, on the highway, for example, you can take your hands off the wheel, and it will control it. It has this smart cruise control that basically uses the sensors to detect other cars and maintains its speed according to the traffic flow around you. And then, it also has automatic lane changes. So, if you're in the autopilot mode, you can just hit your blinker, and once it's safe, it'll automatically change to the next lane for you.
O'Reilly: Oh, wow.
Shen: It'll warn you if your car's drifting into another lane, for example. So, those are some of the features that we're seeing right now. And, with the release of an update that Tesla pushed out last month, actually, it takes it to the next level. And a lot of that already sounds amazing, but now they have ...
O'Reilly: So, this is just a software update that got ...
O'Reilly: Wow, OK.
Shen: So, of course, you have to have hardware that can run this autopilot feature ...
O'Reilly: But the sensors, from what you're telling me, are already in the car.
Shen: For certain models, yes. And if you're opted for that package. But, this update that was released last month, it has this really cool "summon" feature. Now, we're getting into parking.
O'Reilly: Is this like the Batmobile in 1989's Tim Burton Batman? (laughs)
Shen: OK, yes, close. I'm glad that you just reminded me of that. In a sense, the summon feature, it'll park your car for you, parallel parking or in a perpendicular spot in a bigger parking lot. There's some limitations: You're only supposed to use it on private property, and you can only use it ...
O'Reilly: To protect Gotham City. (laughs)
Shen: (laughs) Exactly. Or, within about 30 feet from the car. But ultimately, in tight spaces, you can get out of the car. For example, you get into a really tight garage, and you can't open the door to get out. You can get out of the car, line it up, hit a key fob or a smartphone app on your phone ...
O'Reilly: Oh my gosh.
Shen: And it will pull the car in. And at the same time, you can summon it. So you can be inside your house, getting ready in the kitchen, having your coffee, hit a button, it'll open your garage door, start your car, back the car out, close the garage door, and be ready for you to go with the engine running the moment you walk out your door.
O'Reilly: Wow. Which is handy in a blizzard.
Shen: Exactly. And, like I said, there's some limitations right now just around the laws of where you can use these. Again, it's private property. But the CEO, Elon Musk, he has very confidently stated that ...
O'Reilly: Did this happened just yesterday on the conference call? When did he say this?
Shen: It may have been, but he stated that eventually, he's hoping "summon" could work on a coast-to-coast a basis, even, where you could summon your car in New York from Los Angeles ...
O'Reilly: Oh, stop it.
Shen: ... across the country. Not only that, it'll know when to charge on the way, and will even sync up, potentially, with your calendar, to arrive right when you need it.
Shen: And he's saying that's within two years. A lot of other manufacturers, automakers have put a timeline of around 2020 of when we'll really start seeing these cars hitting the road in smaller numbers. Google is even more bullish than that. But again, some of these incredible features, it just gives you an idea of what's on the horizon.
O'Reilly: It definitely seems -- before we move on, really quick -- that the safety and the benefits really become prevalent when there's mass adoption. That seems to be the key.
Shen: Yeah, of course. And, you mentioned, with some of these prototypes, I know it's a much smaller sample, but there have been accidents, from what I recall, by human error, either by the operator, in some way, or something else.
O'Reilly: I mean, they went like 2 million miles before it happened, and then it was human error. It's like, how long can you drive without an accident? (laughs) You know?
Shen: Yeah, that's a very impressive result. I don't think of these companies would be pursuing it if they didn't see how well this technology is coming along.