Tesla's Model X crossover, to be released next year, could be a candidate for autopilot technology in 2016. Via Tesla Motors
We may not have hoverboards, but never fear, future lovers: Self-driving cars will most assuredly be arriving soon. The latest to make a bold guarantee about a self-driving vehicle is none other than Tesla, who says it expects to have a car with its version of autopilot within three years.
It feels like autonomous vehicles have been on the horizon for ages, but only recently has it become clear that they're actually going to hit showrooms. Zero people should be surprised that Tesla is jumping into the self-driving market, as CEO Elon Musk has made it his personal mission to crack every impossible transportation segment he can.
What is notable is how Musk plans to leapfrog other carmakers interested in building autonomous vehicles by having Tesla take a more measured approach. In an interview with the Financial Times, Musk said the three-year timeframe will produce a car that can handle 90 percent of the driving duties.
When Musk first announced the concept four months ago, he billed it as "autopilot" for Tesla's cars, with drivers still on hand to do some of the driving. What exactly the computer driver will do isn't fully fleshed out, but presumably it would be a far more advanced version of cruise control, with drivers still needing to do things like park and perhaps deal with city driving.
With the announcement that Tesla plans to have autopilot-capable cars within three years, Musk leapt past Nissan and Daimler AG, who both have said they'll have autonomous cars by the end of the decade. With that, Tesla certainly has a nice marketing advantage, but Musk admitted that a fully autonomous car—like the aformentioned automakers, along with Google, plan on making—is still years off.
Autonomous vehicles are expected to not just dominate, but be the vehicle market in a couple decades. But even as the technology gets better, there's a long way to go in terms of clearing up the legal and insurance frameworks, as well as popular perception.
Tesla's dedicated band of early adopters have already bought heavily into electric vehicles—largely because the Model S is indeed a great car—and if anyone's going to trust an autopilot to drive, it'd be that segment. Over time, I'm sure people will get used to the idea of cars driving on their own, just as people eventually get used to every other technology that become widespread.
The legal and insurance aspects are another hurdle altogether. As Reuters notes, self-driving cars are still illegal in the European Union, and insurance companies—especially as they start implementing safe-driving and driver monitoring programs into their pricing—are going to have a field day trying to figure out how to insure a vehicle that drives itself. Some may choose not to, especially if the legal framework is murky. Hypothetical: How does one legally assign blame in a traffic accident involving a self-driving car if autonomous cars aren't even mentioned in traffic laws?
By focusing on autopilot—and I bet it'll end up being billed as super-hyper-advanced cruise control—Tesla may avoid a bunch of those pitfalls while still forcing the legal aspects and public perception to shift. It's a gradual approach that may be exactly what the coming autonomous vehicle segment needs, but it'll be three years until we find out.