Elon Musk believes Tesla will have ‘level 4 or 5’ self-driving this year – what does that mean?

Elon Musk has again decided to share a timeline about Tesla’s self-driving effort – again claiming it will achieve “full self-driving” by the end of the year.

But this time, the CEO has mentioned “level 4 or 5” self-driving. However, it’s not clear if he knows what that means.

Over the years, Musk has claimed that Tesla was on the verge of achieving “full self-driving capability” so often that it is hard to believe him now.

It’s not only hard to believe, but it’s also even hard to understand what the actual goal is at this point.

Tesla’s original promise was quite clear: Every car sold since 2016 will be able to drive entirely by itself at a level safer than humans through software updates in the future.

At times, “level 5 SAE” autonomy was mentioned by Musk, along with the ability to “go to sleep” while the car drives you around.

But since Tesla released its Full Self-Driving (FSD) Beta, these previously clear goals have become more vague and disappointing.

Tesla started using terms like “feature complete” and “capable of driving at a level safer than humans” with FSD Beta. However, it has become less clear how Tesla plans to get the FSD out of beta and into a product that can actually be useful, like a robot taxi service.

It looks like Tesla has softened its language after missing its goal and timeline a few times, and Musk had mostly stopped making clear timeline predictions until recently.

In the last few months, he mentioned a few times that he believes Tesla will achieve “full autonomy by the end of the year” – though he remained vague about what form it will take.

In a recent comment about Tesla’s self-driving effort at an AI conference in China, the CEO has used new language that makes things a bit more interesting:

In terms of where Tesla is at this stage, I think we are very close to achieving full self-driving without human supervision. This is only speculation, but I think we’ll achieve full self-driving, maybe what you would call four or five, I think later this year.

The important terms here are “without human supervision” and “four or five” – although, for the latter, Musk doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.

The driving automation “levels” are based on the SAE standards, which this chart summarizes well:

Image: SAE International

The most significant aspect of the jump from level 2 to level 3 is that the responsibility falls with the system (not the driver) starting from level 3 and up.

Meanwhile, the major difference between levels 4 and 5 is that the latter is supposed to be able to drive in “any condition anywhere.”

Electrek’s Take

The fact that Elon casually says “4 or 5” is maddening to me. It’s such a massive difference, and he should know better than keep talking about level 5.

Technically, that’s what he promised before, but I think it’s clearly unachievable with current hardware. You just need to try to use Autopilot in the snow and even heavy rain to see that you often get “weather alerts” about the sensors being covered, and the system requires you to take over.

Even level 4 is questionable, as FSD Beta often asks drivers to take over in seemingly good conditions. I can see level 3 happening for Tesla, but the company somehow doesn’t seem to be interested in that.

We are already halfway through the year. Elon’s timeline is literally a few months away. I can’t believe it can confidently keep claiming this is happening.

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