Elon Musk: Tesla's driverless car will be street-ready in three years

Tesla raises the stakes with a bold about driverless cars.

Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk has raised the ante on the rest of the automobile industry, declaring in a recent interview with the Financial Times that his company's self-driving car will be street-ready by 2016.

Google, whose autonomous car has successfully driven more than 500,000 miles and has even accommodated a blind driver, had previously set 2018 as the expected release date for its self-driving car technology. Israeli company Mobileye is the only other to make as bold a claim as Tesla, albeit with a lower-cost system that The New York Times says  “does not offer the autonomy achieved by Google’s engineers.”

Although Musk has a tendency to talk publicly of far-reaching technological concepts, most notably the Hyperloop, he told the Financial Times that this declaration is “not speculation,” but rather an educated guess based on the company’s internal development.

There is a catch, however – Musk says the car will not be fully autonomous, but will instead offer “a form of ‘auto-pilot’ in most situations that would allow the vehicle to take over control,” the Financial Times reported.

“My opinion is it’s a bridge too far to go to fully autonomous cars,” Musk said in the interview. “It’s incredibly hard to get the last few percent.”

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In that sense, Tesla’s plans for driverless cars align more with Mobileye’s than Google’s. Mobileye can automate driving a vehicle that drives “in a single lane at freeway speeds, as well as identifying traffic lights and automatically slowing, stopping and then returning to highway speeds.” Its benefit, compared to Google’s driverless car, is that it costs just a few hundred dollars to outfit a car with the cameras that make up the Mobileye system.

The Financial Times also notes that Google has had difficulty finding a manufacturing partner willing to adopt its technology, reportedly out of concern for safety and liability.

“Mr Musk’s rejection of the idea of a fully autonomous car, however, was the latest sign that Google has had trouble finding partners among established carmakers to bring its technology to the road,” the Financial Times reported.

Despite the increasingly competitive race to put the first driverless car on the road, others are less optimistic. Sheila Brennan, IDC’s program manager for product lifecycle strategies, said in March that issues involving handling the implicit data and legal issues involved with autonomous cars will keep them largely off the road until about 2040.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Ciscoand Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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