Elon Musk's list of promises is long. His fans see his visionary side there. His detractors, on the other hand, do not hesitate to point out that he almost never holds them.
His latest promise will undoubtedly rekindle enthusiasm for autonomous cars after years of dashed expectations.
"I would be shocked if we do not achieve full-self-driving safer than a human this year. I would be shocked," Musk said during Tesla's fourth-quarter earnings call on Wednesday.
He emphasized: "Being safer than a human is a low standard, not a high standard. People are often distracted, tired, texting. … It’s remarkable that we don’t have more accidents."
The Society of Automotive Engineering, which sets standards for the engineering industry, has defined six levels, ranging from Level 0 (no assistance) to Level 5 (full self-driving in all conditions). A vehicle's technology must reach all six before it is officially autonomous as TheStreet reported on Jan. 11.
"What we have in the market today is automated cars, not autonomous cars", Brian Moody, executive editor at Autotrader, told TheStreet. "Autonomous car means you get in in the car and the car does everything. We don't have it yet."
Most new cars feature Level 1 technology, such as lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control.
But Musk seems more sure of himself than ever, even promising that autonomous driving services and features will be an important growth driver for Tesla.
"Full self-driving. So, over time, we think full self-driving will become the most important source of profitability for Tesla. It's -- actually, if you run the numbers on robotaxis, it's kind of nutty -- it's nutty good from a financial standpoint," doubled down the billionaire.
He added: "And I think we are completely confident at this point that it will be achieved. And my personal guess is that we'll achieve full self-driving this year, yeah, with data safety level significantly greater than the present.
"So it's -- you know, the cars in the fleet essentially becoming self-driving by a software update, I think, might end up being the biggest increase in asset value of any asset class in history. We shall see."
So, Will Tesla Be First With Autonomous Cars?
Most Tesla cars have a standard driver assistance feature, autopilot. Autopilot comes standard on every new Tesla. The system enables the car to perform some maneuvers on its own. It matches the speed of your car to that of the surrounding traffic and helps parallel or perpendicularly park your car.
The Austin electric-vehicle manufacturer also offers a full-self-driving feature, a system of driving assistance features, like automatically changing lanes and making turns.
FSD Beta has sophisticated features like “smart summon,” which lets drivers call their cars from parking spots to come pick them up, using their smartphones and the Tesla app like a remote control. It costs an additional $12,000, or a $199-a-month subscription.
However, both Autopilot and FSD Beta do not make Tesla vehicles fully autonomous.
"Autopilot, enhanced autopilot and full-self-driving capability are intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any moment. While these features are designed to become more capable over time, the currently enabled features do not make the vehicle autonomous," insists the company on its website.
Basically, Tesla cars can't drive themselves.
So what does Elon Musk mean?
If we stick to what the company says, we are still far from seeing Model 3, Model S, Model X and Model Y driving themselves.
"Full autonomy will be dependent on achieving reliability far in excess of human drivers as demonstrated by billions of miles of experience, as well as regulatory approval, which may take longer in some jurisdictions," warns Tesla.
Two features are coming soon: "Autosteer on city streets and Traffic and Stop Sign Control." That would presumably enable your Tesla to navigate and steer on urban roads without driver input.
Will Elon Musk Deliver Self-Driving Cars?
No doubt: Musk has changed the auto industry landscape. But Tesla's achievements have happened on a timeline removed from Musk's promises. The history of those promises shows that he rarely keeps them, at least not within the deadlines he sets.
Latest example: the futuristic Cybertruck. In November 2019, the billionaire assured that the first trucks would be delivered in 2021. Tesla has postponed this date twice. On Wednesday, Musk said production of the Cybertruck won't start until at least 2023.
"As the Cybertruck, Semi, Roadster, Optimus, we'll be ready to bring those to production. Hopefully, next year. That is most likely," said Musk.
Optimus is a humanoid robot that Tesla plans to build to assist in tasks around the factory or perform other types of repetitive work.
In 2016, he promised that we'll have driverless Tesla vehicles.
He was back at it in 2018, when he promised that Version 9 of the FSD feature would begin rolling out in August. He did it again during Tesla Autonomy Day in 2019, proclaiming that “a year from now” there would be “over a million cars with full self-driving, software, everything.”
Last July, he promised that “FSD 9 beta is shipping soon,” with an added “I swear!” just in case you had any doubts about his solemnity.
Regulators recently called Tesla's use of full-self-driving” for its driver-assist systems “misleading.”
"It’s clear that if you’re marketing something as full self-driving and it is not full self-driving, and people are misusing the vehicles and the technology, but you have a design flaw and you have to prevent that misuse,” Jennifer Homendy, the head of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, told CNBC.
A Tesla Driver Is Charged in a Crash Involving Autopilot
The NTSB and the California Department of Motor Vehicles are investigating different aspects of Tesla’s FSD development and technology.
We are still a long way from autonomous cars on the roads. Industry and government officials need to agree on the definition of self-driving and then set safety standards, such as who is at fault if a self-driving car kills someone.
Automakers must also convince the public. AAA surveys have shown more than 70% of the American public fears driverless cars.