Investor's Corner

Tesla to focus on “narrow AI” and neural maps in next-gen Autopilot


Tesla reported Q2 financials yesterday which lacked new actionable information for Tesla traders, but provided some unexpected details on one topic, autonomous driving.

Neel N. Mehta of Morgan Stanley was first to ask for a  “an update on Tesla’s proprietary mapping initiatives.”

Elon initially responded that “I think we would prefer to be confidential in that regard,” but Elon being Elon further explained that “what we’ve said thus far is that there’s need to have much higher definition maps than currently exists anywhere in the world in order to have full autonomy. And we’re in the process of building those and I think making good progress.”

Later on in the call, James J. Albertine of Consumer Edge Research asked to “understand in more detail I think how you [Elon] plan to get to fully autonomous.” Elon finally relented and said “Well, again, major product announcements are not – I shouldn’t do those on an earnings call, obviously. And all I’d say is that full autonomy is going to come a hell of a lot faster than anyone thinks it will. And I think what we’ve got under development is going to blow people’s minds. It blows my mind, so.”

Elon was not done. Colin Rusch of Oppenheimer went back on the subject and asked “how you guys are going to approach that functionality going forward with the driver assist in the autonomous driving push going forward?” Elon answered that “I think we’ll have a more significant announcement on that later. So it’s not really – earnings call is not the right time for that except that it will be a Tesla solution, internal solution.”

The analysts were not done with the topic. Brad Erickson of Pacific Crest Securities pounded on asking “Just had a quick follow up, I guess, on something that’s been asked a couple of times; take another run at it. I guess given that you’re obviously no longer working with this key supplier [Mobileye] around full autonomy. What are the major hurdles that you see for Tesla here to overcome to get to full autonomy? Is it just a case of software development, lots more miles driven and basically getting the right people in place? Any color on sort of some of the key challenges you’re facing and where you’re particularly focused for delivering full autonomy at some point?”

“It’s exciting, it blows me away, the progress we’re making.” – Elon Musk

Elon finally gave some more details: “Well, full autonomy is really a software limitation. I mean the hardware is just to create full autonomy, so it’s really about developing advanced, narrow AI for the car to operate on. I want to emphasize narrow AI, it’s like not going to take over the world, but it needs to be really good at driving a car. So increasingly sophisticated neural maps that can operate in reasonably sized computers in the car. That’s our focus. I’m very optimistic about this. It’s exciting, it blows me away, the progress we’re making. So I think if I’m this close to it and it’s blowing me away, it’s really going to blow other people away when they see it for the first time.”

According to Wikipedia, “narrow AI,” also known as “weak AI”, “defines non-sentient computer intelligence or AI that is focused on one narrow task. Weak AI is defined in contrast to either “strong AI” (a machine with consciousness, sentience and mind) or “artificial general intelligence” (a machine with the ability to apply intelligence to any problem, rather than just one specific problem).” Wikipedia cites Apple’s Siri as an example of a “narrow AI”. 

Combining all of Elon’s responses, we can expect a major [significant] announcement regarding an internal Tesla solution to autonomous driving, which will involve  a combination of “narrow AI” software implementing sophisticated neural maps, and much higher definition maps but likely no major new hardware. So much for being “confidential.”

This is great news to current Tesla owners because it is a “software” solution: current Model S, Model X and eventual Model 3 owners may be capable of full autonomous driving.

If Elon thinks that all of this “is going to blow other people away”, it probably will.

Photo credit: Garth Woodworth

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