Tesla's Elon Musk: Our fully autonomous cars are now 'very close'

But level 5, fully autonomous Teslas without a driver could be subject to regulatory approval.

New Autopilot feature will let Tesla cars handle red lights and stop signs

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the car manufacturer will have the "basic functionality" to deliver level 5 autonomous driving this year. 

Bloomberg and Reuters report that Musk said Tesla was "very close" to bringing out fully autonomous driving capabilities. He made the claim in a prerecorded video shown at the World AI Conference in Shanghai.

"I'm extremely confident that level 5 or essentially complete autonomy will happen and I think will happen very quickly," said Musk

"I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level 5 autonomy complete this year." 

SEE: An IT pro's guide to robotic process automation (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

In April last year, Musk said Tesla would probably have fully autonomous driving by the end of the year and that he would be "shocked" if it didn't by the end of 2020 at the latest, at which point "having a human intervene will decrease safety".

From the beginning of this month, Tesla sells its Autopilot Full Self-Driving (FSD) for $8,000, up from $7,000. 

Announcing the price rise, he told fans to expect the price of FSD to continue to rise "as the software gets closer to full self-driving capability with regulatory approval". Then he reckons FSD will be worth in excess of $100,000.  

Musk's autonomous-driving ambitions for Tesla are key to its plan to build a fleet of robotaxis, which would compete with the likes of Google spin-off Waymo and GM's Cruise. 

Musk in April said Tesla's robotaxi network would be would be "functionally complete" this year, but he said "regulatory approval is the big unknown". 

The other big unknown is whether Tesla's technology is as close to full-self driving as Musk claims. Tesla cars are currently generally seen as level 2 autonomous vehicles, since there still needs to be a driver at the wheel. At level 5, a vehicle's computers do all the driving and there is no driver, only passengers. 

And some have speculated that Musk is using the nebulous term "regulatory approval" to hide Tesla's progress in achieving Level 5 autonomy. 

If anything, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulations on autonomous driving capabilities are too light touch, according to Consumer Reports. Investigating Tesla Autopilot crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board has also criticized NHTSA – a division of the Department of Transport – for taking a "nonregulatory approach".  

An analysis by Navigant Research positioned Tesla as a 'challenger' in the autonomous driving market, well behind 'leaders' Waymo, Cruise, Ford, and Baidu.  

Tesla says its FSD automatically handles entry and exit to highways and overtaking, plus the Summon and Autopark, and most recently the ability to navigate traffic lights and stop signs. But using the features still require the driver to pay attention to the road.   

SEE: Tesla's big new feature: Autopilot now halts cars at red lights and stop signs

"The currently enabled features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous," Tesla says on the Autopilot purchase page. 

"The activation and use of these features are 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."

According to BloombergNEF, there will be 28 million active robotaxis across the globe by 2040. 

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Elon Musk: "I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level 5 autonomy complete this year."  

Image: CBS/YouTube

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