In an interview with MIT researcher Lex Fridman, Musk claimed that Tesla is less than two years away from bringing a fully autonomous vehicle to market. Elon Musk also said that the company could be “vastly ahead” of others in this race, though he did play modest by adding that he could be wrong in his assessment.
The South African billionaire is known for shooting off at the mouth and tweeting his way into trouble. So his claims of Tesla possibly being the leader in self-driving technology don’t come as a surprise. But it is quite easy to prove that this is another one of Elon Musk’s highly optimistic claims.
Tesla’s Imperfect Scorecard
Tesla’s self-driving capabilities are questionable, as a well-documented history of fatal crashes reveals. People have been killed because the autopilot system has failed to deliver in life-and-death situations, such as failing to brake in time and driving headlong into a trailer.
That event took place in 2016, but you don’t have to go back far to find more examples of Tesla cars causing deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating two fatal Tesla car crashes that took place less than a couple of months ago in Florida.
— MLG Attorneys at Law (@MLG_Attorneys) March 5, 2019
With the number of Tesla crashes racking up, and tragically the victims, Elon Musk’s statement that his technology could be ahead of other companies developing self-driving cars can be considered irresponsible at best.
Elon Musk Contradicts His Peers
Musk’s belief that Tesla’s autonomous vehicle technology is better than the others can be easily defeated if we take a look at Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving project. Waymo’s autonomous vehicles racked up 1.26 million miles on California roads last year, and the self-driving system had to be disengaged only once every 11,017 miles. Waymo has been developing self-driving cars for a decade and is the first one to offer a commercial ride-hailing service.
Despite Waymo’s good track record in autonomous vehicles, however, John Krafcik, the CEO of the Alphabet subsidiary, is self-aware. He believes that self-driving cars will always suffer from limitations and human input will always be required.
Krafcik’s views are echoed by Ford CEO Jim Hackett, who recently said that the company “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles” and their “applications will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex.”
Not surprisingly, Brad Templeton, who advised Google’s self-driving car project in its early years, said:
“Tesla Autopilot is not yet even close to where Waymo was six years ago, and while Waymo has launched a simple ride-hailing network, it still has safety drivers along for the ride most of the time. For Tesla to reach that level in such a short time would be a remarkable achievement.”
Is Musk Hiding from More Pressing Issues?
Tesla’s stock cratered earlier in April after the company reported its biggest-ever sales drop. Tesla delivered just 63,000 vehicles during the first quarter, a sequential drop of 31%.
Elon Musk’s ongoing feud with the SEC has turned out to be another headwind for Tesla’s stock. Shareholders have lost money and have filed lawsuits against the company.
In the midst of all this negativity, Elon Musk is probably trying to bring some cheer by flaunting Tesla’s self-driving technology, which is flawed in any case. Tesla bulls shouldn’t take the claims made in the MIT interview at face value. Elon Musk said in 2015 that he will deliver self-driving vehicles in two years.
We are far beyond that deadline and it won’t be surprising to see Musk miss the next one as well.