Look No Hands… Elon Musk Announces Full Autonomy

All Tesla cars now being built with ‘full self-driving capability’

Hailed as the real-life Iron Man and repeatedly referred to as a ‘disruptor’, Elon Musk has received boundless attention from the media in recent years. As CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX as well as a co-founder of PayPal, Musk is worth a cool $12.5 billion USD. He’s also chairman of the board at SolarCity, an American energy company which provides full-service solar power systems. His ambitious plans have been described as mind-boggling, preposterous and radical… And that was in just one interview. This July, Musk released his Master Plan Part Deux. A very prominent part of the plan was to continue improving Tesla’s auto-pilot technology, eventually creating a fail-safe, self-driving vehicle. Well, this week, he revealed that Tesla had done just that – and that now, every single one of Tesla’s models would come with full self-drive technology.

To understand Musk’s ambitions, you have to look back to the first Master Plan of 2006. The original objective was to design and manufacture a high performance, electric sports car. However, this was just the first step towards generating the necessary revenue for creating an entire range of affordable family cars, which was part of an even more ambitious goal of transforming the Mine-and-Burn economy into one powered by sustainable solar electric. In Musk’s own words, the first plan is now in the final stages of completion. Proving that this wasn’t all talk, Tesla Motors unveiled the Tesla Model 3 earlier this year, and now Tesla has achieved autonomy, the plan is looking less and less like an overly ambitious pipe dream. The hardware used to turn the automaker’s models into driverless vehicles includes eight surround cameras with 360’ visibility, 12 ultrasonic sensors and a forward-facing radar to identify cars in front despite difficult weather conditions. This announcement shouldn’t come as a surprise, as auto-pilot capabilities were always part of the agenda for Tesla. What is surprising, though, is how quickly Part Deux is progressing – especially as the first Master Plan took a decade to complete. This new autonomy sets Tesla against the likes of Uber and Google, making the self-driving car scene even more interesting.

What disruption will this cause?
The successful development of electric, autonomous transport is a clear challenge to competitors. The next logical step for Musk is to pursue the creation of a shared, autonomous Tesla fleet. The wording of Part Deux is characteristically ambiguous, but it looks like the fleet will offer a taxi service to rival those of Uber and Delphi. Team autonomy with SolarCity’s electric batteries, and the possibilities are huge. One of the main changes is likely to come to road infrastructure, as solar batteries could be integrated into the roads to charge cars as they drive. After the unveiling of the Model 3, around 400,000 people placed a deposit for the electric five-seater and the company’s revenue rose from under fifteen million USD in 2008 to four billion USD in 2015. That means that hundreds of thousands of autonomous cars will be owned by the public. So, that’s two products that are set to be unveiled this month – the new hardware for the driverless cars, and the solar roof and battery that was developed in collaboration with SolarCity. According to ‘Part Deux’, these products are about creating sustainability in order to avoid the collapse of civilisation. Despite sounding like an Avengers mission, it’s a compelling argument, and sounds like it will be worth the disruption.

The business angle
By announcing full autonomy, Tesla has put itself ahead of the various other companies that are developing the much-anticipated technology. These development teams will have to respond by offering better services, but in a sense Tesla has already won because its customers have (albeit unknowingly) already purchased their autonomous product at a reasonably affordable cost. It will be interesting to see if other companies can offer a competitive price tag. Just because Tesla has supposedly created the first totally driverless cars, it doesn’t mean that the race is over. Their main strategy is to encourage consumers to buy and own their products, so there’s scope for competition between the public fleets of the likes of Uber, and privately owned vehicles. Tesla has mentioned the development of a shared fleet too, however, so competitors had better up their game.

Musk’s announcement has come at a time where so many different companies, from traditional automakers to tech giants, are throwing investment at developing autonomous cars. Tesla looks to be striding past the other major players, and has basically already sold the product to 400,000 customers. Whilst the announcement itself might not come as much of a shock, the speed at which the advent of autonomous vehicles is progressing in general is. After Uber’s creation of the first (almost) autonomous taxi fleet, it was probably about time that Tesla stepped up to the mark… And as usual, the company isn’t doing things by halves.

Has Tesla won the race to autonomy? Could SolarCity’s integrated batteries transform road infrastructures? What will Musk’s next move be? Share your thoughts and opinions.