Tesla and CEO Elon Musk say that by the end of this year, it will push a software update to that will enable certain Tesla vehicles to offer SAE Level 5 autonomous driving. The update will apply to Model S sedans and Model X crossovers built starting in February, as well as Model 3 sedans built since April. (Older models may potentially be retrofitted with the hardware.) The company also says up to 1 million Model 3s thus equipped on U.S. roads will be part of a robotaxi network by 2020. That’s fully driverless, no-geofencing, able-to-go-anywhere-all-by-itself autonomy and ride-hailing, which owners could use, Musk says, to put their Teslas into service when they’re not using them personally, reducing ownership costs and raising revenue for Tesla Motors.
The recently built Model 3, S, and X vehicles have Full Self-Driving Computers, as the automaker calls them, that will rely on data from eight cameras, 12 sonars, and one radar unit on each Tesla to enable driverless travel. The cars do not have lidar, the light-based environment-sensing technology employed by nearly every other automaker and firm pursuing fully autonomous mobility. Regarding lidar, Musk says it’s “a fool’s errand. Anyone relying on lidar is doomed. Doomed.” The system’s two-chip computer fits between the glovebox and firewall, according to Andrej Karpathy, Tesla’s senior director of artificial intelligence.
“Probably two years from now,” Teslas will be built with “no steering wheel, no pedals,” Musk told a group of Wall Street and Silicon Valley analysts at a conference where the audience then went on to experience a ride in fully autonomous cars. “If we need to accelerate the technology, we’ll just eliminate parts.” Musk said the elimination of such parts could lower the sticker price of a Tesla Model 3 to “about $25,000.”
Using AAA statistics, Musk said traditional internal-combustion engine vehicles cost about 62 cents per mile on average to operate. With no source cited, he said a Tesla Model 3 robotaxi will cost about 18 cents per mile to operate and take in $2 to $3 per mile gross profit in the company’s ride-sharing model. That’s a total annual gross profit of $30,000 per year per car, he said. Musk expects Level 5 autonomy will be ready in big cities first, beginning with San Francisco and New York.
When an analyst asked Musk who would be liable for robotaxi accidents, he responded, “probably Tesla.” But by mid-2020 there will be 1 million Teslas on the road operating as robotaxis, he said, “at a liability level that no one needs to pay attention to. The fleets wake up with an over-the air update.” Tesla crash data will convince federal regulators of the robotaxis’ safety, he said, though Musk admitted that regulators typically are slow to digest such data.
The robotaxis will cost less than $38,000, and while Model 3 owners will be able to keep their cars, those who have leased them will have to give them back to Tesla when the lease expires, he said, adding that customers are essentially financing the robotaxi plan. He added that Tesla Model 3s have an expected lifespan of 1 million miles, and that the battery packs have been upgraded to last at least that long. Motor efficiency is currently 4.5 miles per kilowatt-hour. Musk also reaffirmed that Tesla’s Model Y and a production version of its electric, fully autonomous semi-tractor will come to market next year. Production of Models 3, S, and X will reach 10,000 per week by the end of 2019, he said.
Skeptics will note that Musk’s announcements and the test rides for analysts of vehicles equipped with the Full Self-Driving Computers comes two days before Tesla is scheduled to release its earnings report for Q1 2019, which most analysts expect to be dismal. The markets closed as Tesla engineers were describing the self-driving chip but before Musk could make his bold claims, and the company’s stock slid 10.51 points Monday, to $262.75, after news of a Model S that caught fire in a Chinese parking garage.