Tesla's Elon Musk: Self-Driving Cars Will Push Human Drivers Aside

Fifteen years from now, autonomous cars will be so reliable and safe that it will become illegal for people to drive, the Tesla CEO says.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.—There will come a day in the not-so-distant future when not only will there be autonomous cars that can drive themselves, but it will be illegal for people to take control of the vehicles, according to Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of automaker Tesla.

By that time—which could be as few as 15 years away—the technology will be in place to enable self-driving cars that can safely navigate the roads, which will greatly reduce the number of accidents, Musk said. By that time, it will make no sense to allow humans to drive; it would be too dangerous.

"You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine," he said.

Musk's comments came March 17 as he sat on stage with Jen-Hsun Huang, co-founder and CEO of Nvidia, during the first day of the GPU Technology Conference 2015 (GTC) here, where autonomous vehicles have been a significant point of interest. Huang invited Musk to the stage just after announcing—among other products—a planned development board called the Drive PX for automakers and researchers working on self-driving cars.

The board will be available in May for $10,000 and offers inputs for up to 12 cameras. It is meant to augment the current advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) that warns drivers when their cars drift into other lanes and automatically brakes before an accident occurs. The Drive PX, armed with two Tegra X1 GPUs that can offer up to 2.3 teraflops of compute power, will help bring deep-learning capabilities to cars, essentially enabling them to learn from their experiences, similar to the way people learn to drive.

Huang noted that Musk in the past has made comments about the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI), and asked the Tesla CEO how he squared those fears with the push for smarter cars. Musk said there are different types of AI, and that autonomous cars would be no different than current elevators, which no longer need operators manning the controls to get people to the correct floors.

"Autonomous driving is much safer than it appears, and a lot easier than you think," he said.

Essentially the car industry has the technology it needs to create self-driving cars, Musk said. The work now is around how to make them safer, not only on the road but against hackers. On the road, autonomous vehicles operate well at speeds of 20 mph or slower, and on open highways at 50 mph or more. It's in between—in more congested areas at 30 to 40 mph—that is most difficult, he said. It's in those urban areas—where lanes aren't marked and children are playing—that the ability to identify situations and react according is challenged.

"That's where you get a lot of unexpected things," he said.

Tesla's electric cars—which leverage Nvidia's Tesla GPUs—already come with a broad array of sensors that can help the car navigate roads on its own, and the cars' computer systems receive over-the-air software updates that improve their capabilities. Cars from Tesla and other automakers that are pursuing self-driving vehicles—including Audi, which also is using Nvidia technology—will need more compute power going forward, including in the hardware, according to Musk. Autonomous cars are "a solved problem" that will become more of a reality as the technology improves.

He teased that more software updates will be announced on March 20.

Competition in the market will continue to grow. Not only are established automakers like Audi and BMW pursuing autonomous vehicles, but Google has been working on self-driving vehicles, and Apple has expressed interest in the space.

However, even with all the technological advances, there are other challenges, including the sheer number of cars on the road. There are about 2 billion cars and trucks being driven around, while automakers build about 100 million new ones a year. Just given those numbers, it would take 20 years for self-driving cars to replace all those on the road now. In addition, pointing to the situation with electric and hybrid cars, making such a change is a slow process.

He also pointed to the security of the technology inside the cars. Regular software updates could help thwart attacks on a car's systems, as would multiple levels of security for the most important technologies in the vehicle. Tesla engineers have worked to ensure the security of the technology in their cars, and the company has hired third-party companies to try to hack into vehicles.

"Autonomy is about what level of reliability [and] safety you want," Musk said.