Why Elon Musk is mistaken about Stage Five self-driving automobiles

“I’m extremely confident that level 5 [self-driving cars] or essentially complete autonomy will happen, and I think it will happen very quickly,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a video message to the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai earlier this month. “I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level 5 autonomy complete this year.”

Musk’s remarks triggered much discussion in the media about whether we are close to having full self-driving cars on our roads. Like many other software engineers, I don’t think we’ll be seeing driverless cars (I mean cars that don’t have human drivers) any time soon, let alone the end of this year.

[Read: Rallycross is going electric in 2021 with a chaotic new race series across Europe]

I wrote a column about this on PCMag, and received a lot of feedback (both positive and negative). So I decided to write a more technical and detailed version of my views about the state of self-driving cars. I will explain why, in its current state, deep learning, the technology used in Tesla’s Autopilot, won’t be able to solve the challenges of level 5 autonomous driving. I will also discuss the pathways that I think will lead to the deployment of driverless cars on roads.

Level 5 self-driving cars

This is how the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines level 5 self-driving cars: “The vehicle can do all the driving in all circumstances, [and] the human occupants are just passengers and need never be involved in driving.”

Basically, a fully autonomous car doesn’t even need a steering wheel and a driver’s seat. The passengers should be able to spend their time in the car doing more productive work.

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full autonomous vehicle level 5 self-driving car prototype

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