From freight to public buses, ride sharing to commuting, Tesla’s vision for the future is big and bold

In a recent blog post entitled “Master Plan, Part Deux,” Tesla CEO and possible mad scientist comic book character Elon Musk outlined how his upstart electric car company would completely revamp the world of transportation and energy consumption. The 1,500-word post hits on a lot of issues, which isn’t all that surprising considering the scope, but one of the most prominent recurring themes is the advent of autonomous driving technology. In short, Tesla wants to take human drivers out of the equation across the board, with the ultimate goal being greater convenience, more safety, and higher efficiency. But the question is this – is the Master Plan a workable solution, or just a sci-fi pipe dream?

The post comes at a delicate time for Tesla, as the public’s perception of driverless vehicles is still mired by controversy. That said, the California-based automaker has never shied away from stating its objectives, no matter the circumstances, and despite widespread reticence, Musk says he want to expand the tech’s applications, all with the reassurance that it’s for the greater good.

Read on for a breakdown of Tesla’s Master Plan for autonomous driving technology, plus our take on whether or not it’s even possible.

Continue reading for the full story.

Why Is It A Delicate Time For Tesla?

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To blog now about expanding the applications of autonomous technology is bold, audacious even. In the past few weeks, three separate high-profile crashes involving Tesla’s Autopilot feature (the company’s autonomous driving tech) have sparked controversy and paranoia, with many raising questions over the system’s safety and marketing.

What’s more, crashes and miscalculations are simply unavoidable in the inevitable push for driverless cars.

The thing is, if you’ve been paying attention, all that shouldn’t matter in the slightest.

I posted an in-depth analysis of the crashes and what they mean for autonomous tech here, but the gist goes something like this: don’t blame Autopilot. In each of the three incidents, the human factor was at fault, either because the driver was distracted, unaware, or simply misusing the feature. So far, all subsequent investigations have proved these assertions to be correct.

What’s more, crashes and miscalculations are simply unavoidable in the inevitable push for driverless cars. You can’t test for everything in a lab, and the unfortunate reality is that large-scale, real-world testing is the only way to iron out all the bugs.

Then there’s the issue of complacency, wherein users become overly comfortable with a technology and start to abuse it. Tesla hopes to avoid that kind of thing by saying Autopilot is still in its “beta” phase, but of course, plenty of folks aren’t listening.

Long story short, autonomous technology isn’t perfect, especially now while it’s still in its infancy. But that’s not stopping Tesla from coming up with some pretty big ideas about its implementation.

What’s The Master Plan?

What Musk Means By “Autonomous”

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The term “autonomous car” can mean a lot of different things these days. The current state of the technology (or at least what’s available to the general public) consists of several different “semi-autonomous” systems, like automatic braking, or adaptive cruise control. These systems will “autonomously” stop or accelerate the car independent of any inputs from the driver, but most of the time, a human is still required to operate the machine.

Musk’s blog post takes that tech to its final, logical conclusion – a car that drives itself 100 percent of the time, with no human input required

Musk’s blog post takes that tech to its final, logical conclusion – a car that drives itself 100 percent of the time, with no human input required. Ever. This is what is meant by “fully autonomous” capability.

Musk says every one of Tesla’s vehicles will have that kind of feature eventually, but for now, it’s far beyond the scope of the current Autopilot system.

Of course, safety is key to the success of autonomous vehicles, and Musk reiterates that a fully autonomous vehicle should have a failsafe wherein “any system in the car could break and [it] will still drive itself safely.”

Autonomous Vehicles For Consumers

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One of the most obvious applications for autonomous driving technology is in consumer vehicles. That means Tesla’s premium sedan (Model S), premium SUV (Model X), and compact sedan (Model 3). Musk also mentions an upcoming compact SUV and a pickup truck, covering pretty much all the major segments out there.

All but one, that is. While Musk did mention sports cars in his post, he never tied the segment to autonomous technology. So don’t worry, gearheads – the plug-and-play racers everyone’s fretting about won’t come from Tesla. Probably.

Autonomous Vehicles For Commercial And Public Transportation

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Along with the cars you might park in your garage, the post details how driverless tech could benefit commercial vehicles and public transportation.

One of the biggest shockers was mention of a heavy-duty truck. Musk says a Tesla-branded semi could significantly cut down on the cost of transporting cargo, while simultaneously increasing safety and being “really fun to operate,” all of which presumably comes as a benefit of autonomous technology.

Then there’s “high passenger-density urban transport,” or as normal people call them, buses. “With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of the bus driver to that of fleet manager,” Musk states in his blog. The idea would be to reduce traffic, increase the number of seats, up the road speed to match that of other cars, and offer the ability to take people “all the way to their destination.” What’s more, an autonomous bus could be summoned via an app, or by a button at the bus stop.

Autonomous Vehicles For Sharing

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Once “true self-driving” is given the regulatory okay, Musk says you’ll be able to “summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere,” and that “you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else” while on the move.

This kind of capability opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities, one of which is the prospect of generating income.

This kind of capability opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities, one of which is the prospect of generating income. The post says a driverless Tesla model will allow you to opt into a “shared fleet,” wherein participants are taxied to and fro in your car while you’re not using it. Think Uber, but without the human driver. Musk predicts this will even lower the cost of ownership to the point of offsetting a monthly lease payment.

But private owners won’t be the only ones to benefit – full autonomy will also give Tesla itself a chance to operate its own fleet of on-demand rides.

Okay, So Autonomous All The Things. Is That Even Possible?

It’s not just possible – it’s inevitable.

While seemingly cutting-edge, the ideas put forth in “Master Plan, Part Deux” aren’t actually all that new. People have been contemplating the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles for some time now, and in reality, Musk’s vision simply highlights a few of the more practical aspects.

It should also be noted that the blog post completely ignores all the potentially negative repercussions of autonomous vehicles. For example, what’s gonna happen to all the cabbies, bus drivers, and truckers out there when they’re no longer needed behind the wheel? Or what happens when some nefarious hacker manages to take control of not just one car, but a whole fleet?

But hey, Musk is trying to sell us on autonomous cars, so I guess a bias should be expected. If you’re looking for a more complete rundown on the pros and cons of autonomous driving technology, click here.

My point is this – the potential benefits of the tech are too good to ignore, and even in the face of some tragedy or disaster, the demand will always be there. And that’s what makes it inevitable.

What About Safety?

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Currently, the primary justification for autonomous tech is safety. At the recent Automated Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco, California, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind said, “No one incident will derail the Department of Transportation and NHTSA from its mission to improve safety on the roads by pursuing new lifesaving technologies,” adding, “If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting for a very, very long time. How many lives might we be losing while we wait?”

He justifies equipping Tesla models with the semi-autonomous Autopilot system in beta form because it’s still safer than a totally manual car

Musk agrees. In the blog post, he justifies equipping Tesla models with the semi-autonomous Autopilot system in beta form because it’s still safer than a totally manual car (as long as it’s used properly, that is). He adds that it would be “morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.”

I bet all that data Tesla is collecting to improve the system doesn’t hurt, either.

The blog post goes on to say that Autopilot’s beta classification will be changed once it is “approximately 10 times safer than the U.S. vehicle average.”

When Should I Expect Fully Autonomous Cars To Go Mainstream?

Now that’s the trillion-dollar question.

Musk is quick to admit that while the hardware required for full autonomy (cameras, radar, sonar, etc.) is already in place, the software brain that runs it will take some time to perfect.

How much time? Well, according to the blog post, Tesla predicts that “worldwide regulatory approval will require something on the order of 6 billion miles (10 billion km),” while “current fleet learning is happening at just over 3 million miles (5 million km) per day.”

A little quick math reveals we’re still about five-and-a-half years from full autonomy meeting the approval of the regulatory bodies.

However, even though the learning rate is bound to increase, 2022 still seems a bit premature. After all, just look at the hysteria that erupted earlier this month in regards to the three Autopilot crashes. What’ll happen when there’s actual proof that a self-driving system is responsible for an injury or death?

Either way, the technology will be there, it’s just a matter of how it’s implemented. More competition from other automakers will help speed up the process (not to mention lay a nice PR blanket over any negative press), and as the benefits begin to manifest, demand will increase.

My prediction for the widespread adoption of fully autonomous vehicles? At least 10 years. If things get really messy, 30 years tops.

So like waiting on delivery of your brand-new Tesla Model 3, don’t hold your breath.

Jonathan Lopez
Jonathan Lopez
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