Experts’ dismissal of Tesla’s Full Self Driving push proves Elon Musk is still not taken seriously

(Credit: My Tesla Adventure/YouTube)

Despite delays, Elon Musk remains optimistic that Tesla’s efforts to achieve Full Self Driving will bear fruit soon. This was highlighted in a statement during his appearance at the recently held 2020 World Artificial Intelligence Conference in China, where he noted that Tesla is closing in on “Level 5” functionalities. Experts in the field of automation beg to differ. 

In a recent statement to Automotive News, Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights (formerly Navigant Research) and Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, openly dismissed Tesla’s efforts to achieve full self driving. In a scathing rebuke, Abuelsamid described Musk’s targets as absurd. He also expressed his pessimism about Tesla’s approach to automation, which focuses on vision and artificial intelligence. 

“The cars they are building will never be Level 5, period. It’s nonsense. He needs to shut up until he can deliver something. The premise of making highly automated systems on cameras alone is fundamentally flawed. Their approach to software doing end-to-end AI systems is almost certainly not going to work. I don’t believe it can work. AI is too brittle,” he said. 

It should be noted that Abuelsamid recently published a study ranking companies that are currently pursuing autonomy. Similar to studies conducted by Guidehouse Insights when it was still operating as Navigant Research, Abuelsamid ranked Tesla dead last, even behind startups like Navya, which have limited real world driving data. 

Abuelsamid’s sentiments were echoed by Missy Cummings, who also argued that there is no way that Tesla could achieve Level 5 autonomy with its vehicles. In a statement to KCBS Radio, Cummings noted that Elon Musk likely does not understand what Level 5 Automation really is. This is an interesting comment from the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University, considering that Waymo CEO John Krafcik noted last year that ultimately, “Level 5 is a bit of a myth.”

“There is no way, shape, or form the car is going to be Level 5. He doesn’t really understand what Level 5 is. I think what he means is Level 4, and he’s not even going to get Level 4. The perception systems don’t work well in weather conditions, with long shadows. We know the Tesla perception system, and the news is it’s a really bad system,” she remarked. 

While there is some merit in criticizing the Tesla CEO for missing his targets with regards to the release of the electric car maker’s full self driving system, it seems far too careless to simply dismiss all the work that Tesla has accomplished over the years either. The company, after all, is gathering real world driving data at an unprecedented scale that’s unrivaled by companies like Waymo, and that matters much when it comes to training neural networks, as emphasized by ARK Invest CEO Cathie Wood. Tesla’s vision based approach to autonomy has also gained support from notable names such as George Hotz, who believes that Tesla would eventually become the Apple of self driving cars.

It is unfortunate, but based on the dismissive and almost aggressive rebuke of Tesla’s efforts from the experts tapped by Automotive News, it appears there is still a general tendency to completely dismiss Elon Musk and his initiatives. Interestingly enough, these statements are pretty familiar to those who have followed the SpaceX and Tesla story over the years. It may be difficult to recall at this point, but there was a time when it was believed that landing the Falcon 9 first stage on land and an autonomous barge on the sea is impossible. There was also a time when the Model X was considered unbuildable. 

Fortunately, Tesla and its CEO are a stubborn bunch, and it takes a lot more than skepticism to discourage the company. This is especially notable considering that Tesla is currently looking to roll out a massive rewrite of its Autopilot suite, which should take the company even closer to full self driving. Perhaps this time around, Elon Musk’s statements about Level 5 Autonomy may actually be pretty accurate, at least in terms of its features and timeframe. 

“I’m extremely confident that level five or essentially complete autonomy will happen, and I think, will happen very quickly,” said Musk, answering another question. I think at Tesla, I feel like we are very close to level five autonomy. I think—I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level five autonomy complete this year,” Musk said at the 2020 WAIC.

Simon Alvarez: Simon is a reporter with a passion for electric cars and clean energy. Fascinated by the world envisioned by Elon Musk, he hopes to make it to Mars (at least as a tourist) someday.
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