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Self-driving cars are coming sooner than expected, according to Elon Musk

The Tesla CEO expects level 5 automation by 2019.


Phillip Tracy


Posted on May 2, 2017   Updated on May 24, 2021, 3:47 pm CDT

Elon Musk explained how he plans to end traffic, replace roof tiles with solar panels, and bring one million people up to Mars in a revealing TED talk on Friday. While those mind-numbing concepts will take several years or even decades to come true, Musk says another one of his radical ideas will be a reality in 2019: self-driving cars.

Answering a question about the timeline for autonomy, Musk said he expects people to be sleeping in their self-driving cars in the next two years. German giants Daimler and Bosch estimate fully autonomous vehicles will become available “within 5 years,” while others like Audi point to a 2020 release date.

A look at where we are at now and what Musk wants to achieve might make you a bit less optimistic about his statements. There are five levels of self-driving cars, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers:

Level 0: No automation.

Level 1: Uses information about the driver’s environment to assistant with either steering or acceleration/deceleration while all other functions are performed by the driver.

Level 2: This level has at least one system that assists with both steering and acceleration/deceleration, while the driver does the rest.

Level 3: This is the first level controlled primarily by an automated system, but it still expects a driver to intervene if necessary. All “safety-critical” functions can be controlled by the vehicle.

Level 4: The first fully autonomous setup, level 4 is only capable of functioning with specific operating domains, like roadway types, speed range, and environmental conditions.

Level 5: A fully autonomous vehicle capable of operating by itself under any condition in all environments.

Most cars fall under level 0 automation, though newer cars with assistance modes reach to level 1 or level 2. Tesla’s current autopilot system is considered level 2 or level 3, depending on who you ask. A number of auto executives at rival companies have denounced level 3 automation, claiming it is unreasonable and irresponsible to expect a driver to intervene with an autonomous system if they are required to.

But regardless of whether auto manufacturers release level 3 cars or skip to level 4, the jump that Musk anticipates—from a car that is primarily operated by its driver to one powered by a fully autonomous system—sounds hopeful at best. Then again, shutting up naysayers is kind of Musk’s thing.

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*First Published: May 2, 2017, 3:45 pm CDT