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Is Elon Musk Right about Tesla’s Self-Driving Timeline?


Oct. 23 2019, Updated 1:26 p.m. ET

In April, Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk had projected that its self-driving cars would on the road by 2020. However, Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson believes that Musk could miss this deadline. Zoox is a self-driving ride-share startup based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Levinson’s reservations about Tesla’s self-driving car

Levinson doesn’t expect to see Tesla’s fully self-driving cars on the roads next year. On Tuesday, he made this observation during Business Insider’s IGNITION: Transportation conference held in San Francisco. Levinson believes that none of the automakers have the technology to drive fully autonomous self-driving vehicles without driver intervention.

While Levinson praises Tesla’s autopilot feature on the freeway, he believes that Zoox has progressed by testing self-driving cars on city streets. Zoox plans to launch its autonomous vehicles by 2021, as well as a fleet of ride-hailing robotaxis.

With respect to Tesla’s self-driving car, Levinson noted, “They don’t have enough sensors or computers to do that given any remotely known technology that exists that humans have ever created.” Levinson continued, “And by the way they’re great cars, the [Tesla autopilot system] on the freeway is I think the best out there … I think if  [Musk] focused on that aspect it would be better received.”

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Tesla’s sensors and battery in a self-driving car

Tesla plans to use cameras, artificial intelligence, and a neural network to maneuver a self-driving car safely. According to Musk, “A human driver is like a camera on a gimbal…it can’t see everywhere at the same time. A Tesla can see all things at all times. The things it focuses on, however, start to become very human like all the time. It turns and focuses on things in a way similar to how humans operate.”

Musk is not a believer in LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor technology. However, industry peers Ford Motor (F), General Motors (GM), Alphabet (GOOGL) (GOOG), and Apple (AAPL) have been investing in developing economically feasible LiDAR technology.

Further, Tesla’s car is expected to have a next-generation battery, which could last for about 1 million miles. In our view, these cars will need lower maintenance requirements and reduced operating costs. The company expects these robotaxis to operate for around $0.18 per mile, quite economical compared to the costs of standard ride-sharing companies.

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Tesla Network

Musk plans to launch the Tesla Network, which would allow owners to put their cars to work as robotaxis. This initiative would change the way consumers look at car ownership.

While some might avoid owning the car due to the easy availability of robotaxis, some others might own it for its earnings opportunities. According to Musk’s estimate, a Tesla car could generate about $30,000 of income per year for the owner.

Robotaxis: A hot space

While only the future will reveal whether Musk or Levinson’s predictions will come true, let’s take a quick look at what’s happening in the robotaxi industry. In the autonomous ride-sharing industry, behemoths like Google’s Waymo and Ford, as well as startups like Voyage and Zoox, are racing for commercial launches.

Google’s Waymo is quite close to going driverless. Waymo One is the company’s membership-based ride-sharing service that operates in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo has sent emails to its Waymo One customers that their next ride could be completely driverless.

Further, Waymo has completed more than 10,000 rides in Phoenix and Silicon Valley. Most customers have given these rides positive ratings. It looks as if Waymo is a front-runner in the race to launch robotaxis on a commercial basis.

Ford is planning to launch its robotaxis in 2021 in three locations—Austin, Miami-Dade County, and Washington, DC. The automaker plans to start testing its fleet of self-driving cars on Austin roads soon. Plus, Ford has invested in Argo AI for its autonomous technology platform. To learn more, please read Ford’s Self-Driving Cars in Austin: Bad News for Tesla?

Startups like Voyage and Zoox are upping their games to garner a piece of the robotaxi segment. Voyage recently raised $31 million, taking its total investment to $52 million to date. Further, Zoox just signed a $200 million convertible note. It has a permit from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to drive its autonomous vehicles on state roads.

Although Apple has been quiet about its self-driving car plan, it’s been in the news. Recently, it was revealed that Quanta has become involved in the company’s autonomous driving segment. To learn more, please read Apple’s Self-Driving Car: Quanta Supplying the Tech.


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