Elon Musk vows fully self-driving Teslas this year and 'robotaxis' ready next year

Chris Woodyard

Tesla will have fully self-driving cars ready by the end of the year and a "robotaxi" version – one that can ferry passengers without anyone behind the wheel – ready for the streets next year, CEO Elon Musk said Monday.

He laid out a vision in which current and future Tesla owners can use their cars for their everyday commutes and then make money from them by watching them drive themselves off for fleet robotaxi service for a few hours.

Musk said Tesla will use its own fleet of cars, including Model 3 cars coming off lease, to fill in the service gaps.

The aggressive timetable, backed by the advancements that Tesla said it has made, not only puts pressure on Waymo, the Google-developed company considered a leader in driverless cars, but ridesharing giants Uber and Lyft.

Musk's comments on the Tesla Autonomy Investor Day came at a critical time. Deliveries of its vehicles came in at 63,000 for the first quarter, well below analysts' consensus expectations of 77,100, which was seen by some as a trouble sign for the company's future. 

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By revealing a future for the company linked not only to vehicle sales but driverless taxis, Musk pointed heavily to a new revenue stream that might boost Tesla's fortunes. But he did not lay out a financial path to achieve it, including whether the company might need to seek additional debt financing.

Tesla will keep a share of the revenue when owners give up their cars for a few hours for driverless ridesharing duty – potentially cutting deeply into their price. He also said Teslas, including the battery pack, will be built for 1 million miles of service, including redundant systems for extra safety.

"I feel very confident predicting autonomous robotaxis for Tesla next year," Musk said, although he acknowledged the automaker has not lined up any communities yet where they can be tested. 

Musk said the goal is to have 1 million vehicles, both those in the hands of owners and its own, that could be pressed into the robotaxi service by the end of next year.  However, he added some of his projected timelines have been wrong in the past.

Tesla already has one big self-driving advantage over other automakers: The hardware needed to achieve it is already being installed into Tesla vehicles.

It started with the Model S and X a month ago and the Model 3 about a week ago, Musk said. He added the only issue stopping the cars from hitting the road in self-driving mode is the software – and it's well on its way to being ready.

"All Tesla cars being produced right now have everything necessary for full self-driving. All you have to do is improve the software," he said. He said he's talking about the highest level of self-driving capability – Level 5 – and vehicles that aren't "geo-fenced," meaning electronically confined to a certain area

The self-driving system is based around new computer chips that were developed in -house, replacing ones from Nvidia, a tech company that has tried to position itself as a leader in the race to develop self-driving cars. Musk said Tesla has an advantage in that it designed its chip for the single purpose of self-driving.

He said the chip will continue to be improved with the next generation due in about two years.

The new system was designed to be retrofitted into post-2016 Teslas for owners who want them.

The Tesla self-driving system will rely on eight cameras positioned around the car. Unlike other automakers, Tesla will not use so-called Lidar sensors as well, which measure distance in a different way than radar.

"Anyone who relies on Lidar is doomed," Musk said. "They are expensive sensors that are unnecessary."

The auto industry has been scrambling to develop cars that safely pilot themselves. Most have been chasing Waymo, which was among the first to develop the technology. Waymo is an offshoot of Google.

Tesla already has a partial self-driving system it calls Autopilot. But the company has underscored that drivers have to always be ready to react rather than let the system do all the driving.

Now the car will do all the driving.

"If you don't have a car with hardware necessary for full self-driving, it's like buying a horse," he said. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elon Musk vows fully self-driving Teslas this year and 'robotaxis' ready next year