In the buzzing world of autonomous driving, Tesla has always been sort of an anomaly. Not only does the company build everything in-house, from hardware to processors to artificial intelligence capabilities, but it’s also the only automaker using real-time cameras, rather than pre-mapping LiDARs, to guide vehicle movement. And the “mainstream” self-driving companies just don’t think it’s going to work.
“It is a misconception that you can simply develop a driver-assistance system further until one day you can magically jump to a fully autonomous driving system,” John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, the self-driving startup spun off from Google’s X lab, said in a recent interview with German business magazine Manager Magazin.
“In terms of robustness and accuracy, for example, our sensors are orders of magnitude better than what we see on the road from other manufacturers,” he added. While acknowledging that Tesla “is developing a really good driver assistance system,” Krafcik said Waymo “manufactures a completely autonomous driving system…For us, Tesla is not a competitor at all.”
Although Waymo doesn’t produce its own cars, its self-driving system is based on the same technology used by auto giants like GM and Ford in their respective driverless programs. Those systems use LiDAR (radar using light instead of radio waves) sensors to pre-map an area so that a driver can select a route for their car to drive itself on.
Tesla’s system, known as Autopilot FSD (Full Self-Driving), by contrast, lets car hit the road first and then figure out what to do at any moment based on a 360-degree view of road conditions captured by eight in-car cameras through machine learning algorithms.
Reacting to Krafcik’s harsh comments on FSD, Musk tweeted Sunday night that Tesla not only has better technology, but also more money, than Waymo to be the leader in self-driving. “To my surprise, Tesla has better AI hardware and software than Waymo (money),” he posted.
Last October, Tesla rolled out a beta version of the Autopilot FSD to a small group of Tesla owners in the U.S. Just this past weekend, Musk shared his own experience with the software and tweeted that it safely drove him to “an unfamiliar location in Los Angeles and back” with no human interventions at all.
However, per its user instruction, the current FSD version still requires an attentive driver behind the wheel at all times. Tesla’s goal is to roll out level 5 autonomy, the highest level of vehicle automation that doesn’t require any human engagement, in 2021.
“I’m extremely confident that Level 5 or essentially complete autonomy will happen, and I think will happen very quickly,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at the virtual World AI Conference 2020 in July. “There are many small problems…[but] I think there are no fundamental challenges remaining for Level 5 autonomy.