Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk Says Future of Autonomous Cars is Nigh

by Tony Kontzer

When you’re preparing to launch a computing platform for self-driving cars, it helps to bring one of the leading voices in automotive innovation along for the ride.

That’s just what NVIDIA CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang did in his opening keynote at the 2015 GPU Technology Conference. Just moments after announcing NVIDIA’s DRIVE PX self-driving car computer, he sat down for a quick fireside chat with Musk, who, as usual, put the pedal to the metal.

“We’ll take autonomous cars for granted in quite a short time,” Musk told a crowd of some 4,000 at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. “I almost view it as a solved problem. We know what to do, and we’ll be there in a few years.”

Musk—who also is co-founder and CEO of Space X, has floated an idea for an ambitious system of pod-like transports, and recently compared the development of artificial intelligence to “summoning the demon”—made it clear that NVIDIA’s advances in GPU technology will play a key role.

“What NVIDIA is doing with Tegra is really interesting and really important for self-driving in the future,” said Musk.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk shared some bold views about the future of automobiles during a chat with NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang.

Not that Musk thinks autonomous cars will come easily. It’s a long road to get from developing the capabilities to implementing them. For example, he predicts that regulators will be loathe to allow self-driving vehicles until they’re presented two or three years of compelling evidence about their safety in comparison to driver-controlled vehicles.

Musk also cautioned that we’ll eventually will have to embrace a seismic change in our relationship with cars as regulators struggle with how to transition from driver-controlled vehicles to those controlled by computers.

Bottom line: at some point, people may not be trusted behind the wheel anymore.

“In the distant future, (legislators} may outlaw driven cars because they’re too dangerous,” he said.

Tesla comes equipped with two Tegra processors to power its big screens.
Tesla comes equipped with two Tegra processors to power its screens.

He also noted that while getting autonomous cars to cooperate at 5-10 MPH is relatively simple, doing so at speeds between 10 and 50 MPH in urban and suburban settings—with pedestrians, cross-traffic and a host of other obstacles and distractions—will prove to be the really hard part of the work. Beyond that, he said, “Once you get above 50 MPH in a freeway environment, it gets easy again.”

That’s not all. Musk said that the transition to autonomous cars, even once they’re ready for prime time, isn’t going to happen overnight. He noted that there are 2 billion cars on roads today, and that the auto industry is cranking out another 100 million a year. At that rate, it would take 20 years to replace that fleet if autonomous cars were available tomorrow.

“It’s not going to all transition immediately,” Musk said. “It’ll take quite a while.”

And then there’s the matter of security. When Huang asked him for his outlook on that, Musk said the threat of hackers taking over cars becomes more significant only if the steering wheel and brake pedal disappear. Until then, drivers can override any potential problems with their hands and feet.

Over the air updates help keep Tesla's Model S fresh long after it's left the factory.
NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang told Musk he’s one of the many Tesla Model S drivers who look forward to the over-the-air updates that keep Tesla’s cars fresh long after they’ve left the factory.

But all these concerns have done nothing to dampen Musk’s view of self-driving cars as a near-future inevitability.

“I think it’s going to become normal, like an elevator,” he said. “There used to be elevator operators and then we came up with circuitry so the elevator knew to come to your floor. Cars will be like that.”

And few companies are better positioned to lead the charge than Tesla. The company’s ground-breaking high-performance electric cars are already known for innovations such as touch screens, digital dashboards and a more recent autopilot feature that helps the cars take control on the highway, when parking, and even to avoid potential accidents.