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July 9, 2020 10:30 AM, EDT

Musk Says Tesla Is ‘Very Close’ to Developing Fully Autonomous Vehicles

Elon Musk speaks during a discussion at the Satellite 2020 Conference in Washington on March 9.Elon Musk speaks during a discussion at the Satellite 2020 Conference in Washington on March 9. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

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Tesla Inc.’s Elon Musk said the carmaker is on the verge of developing technology to render its vehicles fully capable of driving themselves, repeating a claim he has made for years but been unable to achieve.

The CEO has long offered exuberant takes on the capabilities of Tesla cars, even going so far as to start charging customers thousands of dollars for a “Full Self Driving” feature in 2016. Years later, Tesla still requires users of its Autopilot system to be fully attentive and ready to take over the task of driving at any time.

Tesla’s mixed messages have drawn controversy and regulatory scrutiny. In 2018, the company blamed a driver who died after crashing a Model X while using Autopilot for not paying attention to the road. Documents made public last year showed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had issued multiple subpoenas for information about crashes involving Tesla vehicles, suggesting the agency may have been preparing a formal investigation of Autopilot.

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While other self-driving developers have tempered expectations for when their technology will be ready for deployment, Musk is undeterred. He said in a prerecorded video played July 9 during the World AI Conference in Shanghai that Tesla is “very close” to Level 5 autonomy, meaning its cars won’t require human intervention.

“I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for Level 5 autonomy complete this year,” Musk said. “I think there are no fundamental challenges remaining for Level 5 autonomy. There are many small problems, and then there’s the challenge of solving all those small problems and then putting the whole system together, and just keep addressing the long tail of problems.”

 

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Shares of Tesla rose as much as 3.1% to $1,408.56 in early New York trading on July 9.

Musk’s view contrasts with Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, which recently acknowledged it will be relying on human safety drivers to back up its robotaxis for many years to come. General Motors Co.’s Cruise last year backed off plans to make autonomous vehicles available for hailing rides and hasn’t set a new timetable for when such a service will be ready.

Musk, 49, has repeatedly described autonomous driving as transformative for Tesla. He’s not alone in this sense: Cruise CEO Dan Ammann has estimated there will be a $1 trillion addressable market in the U.S. for autonomous ride hailing.

During the July 9 video, Musk said that original engineering on Tesla technology is an important facet of the company’s operations in China, which are anchored by its massive new factory near Shanghai.

Zheping Huang, Chunying Zhang and Gao Yuan were the primary contributors to this report.

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