Elon Musk's master plan 2.0 includes a defense of Tesla Autopilot (also: hello, Tesla Semi!)

July 21, 2016

On July 10, Tesla's outspoken CEO, Elon Musk, tweeted about a "Top Secret Tesla Masterplan, Part 2". The world wondered: what will such a plan include? Will it be exciting enough to distract everyone from three high-profile investigations of the company's Autopilot software, which has been linked to the death of a driver in Florida?

Today, we can answer the first question because Elon Musk has posted details to the Tesla blog. (The second question? Still up for debate.)

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The TL;DR version of Masterplan 2.0 is: merge Powerwall with SolarCity, build big-rigs, improve Tesla Autopilot, kill Uber. For those who want a slightly deeper dive, here are Musk's major goals:

1. Simplify solar power generation and storage: Early adopters of solar systems have gone to great lengths to distance their homes from the grid, but to make solar an option for mainstream consumers, Musk says that the process has to be simplified. By buying SolarCity, Musk hopes to create a one-stop solution, where customers can pay for solar panels and storage with one transaction. Also, because energy storage would be managed by batteries like Tesla's Powerwall, and because the efficiency and cost of such batteries is likely to be improved thanks to Tesla's massive Gigafactory in Nevada, solar systems could become much, much cheaper.

2. Conquer other forms of transportation: Musk & Co. are working on an electric 18-wheeler, the Tesla Semi, that they hope to debut next year. Presumably, it'll be battery-powered, and it'll include an autonomous driving system. They're also developing a bus--one that's smaller and autonomous, which could reduce urban congestion. Musk wants to design it so that it can be summoned by people using street-level buttons or smartphone apps. 

3. Continue perfecting autonomous driving systems: Like many people, Musk believes that autonomous driving is the future of transportation. However, he notes that regulatory agencies will probably require around six billion (with a "b") miles of test data before fully autonomous systems will gain regulatory approval. Currently, Autopilot generates about three million (with an "m") miles of test data each day. At that rate, it would take about 5.5 years to accumulate enough data to gain approvals--but of course, Tesla will gather increasing amounts of information as more owners slide behind the wheel of Tesla vehicles. 

4. Enable autonomous car-sharing: Taking a cue from services like RelayRides and Maven, Musk wants to let Tesla owners rent out their autonomous, electric vehicles when they're not in use. In cities with ample numbers of Tesla vehicles, the company will operate a sharing network for owners. In other markets, Musk says that Tesla may operate its own fleet. Either way, Uber and Lyft--not to mention Uber and Lyft drivers--aren't likely to be thrilled. 

And one more thing...

In a blog post so focused on autonomous vehicles, Musk naturally mentions the current state of Autopilot. In fact, he veers slightly off-script for several paragraphs to defend the system from detractors. He's particularly keen to massage the system's "beta" status that critics keep pointing out. In Musk's own words:

"I should add a note here to explain why Tesla is deploying partial autonomy now, rather than waiting until some point in the future. The most important reason is that, when used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.

"According to the recently released 2015 NHTSA report, automotive fatalities increased by 8% to one death every 89 million miles. Autopilot miles will soon exceed twice that number and the system gets better every day. It would no more make sense to disable Tesla's Autopilot, as some have called for, than it would to disable autopilot in aircraft, after which our system is named.

"It is also important to explain why we refer to Autopilot as 'beta'. This is not beta software in any normal sense of the word. Every release goes through extensive internal validation before it reaches any customers. It is called beta in order to decrease complacency and indicate that it will continue to improve (Autopilot is always off by default). Once we get to the point where Autopilot is approximately 10 times safer than the US vehicle average, the beta label will be removed."

Does that mix of statistics, semantics, and moral high ground sound like a solid defense of Autopilot? How about Musk's master plan: do you find it too ambitious? Too safe? Will the details sway detractors of his proposed purchase SolarCity? Will it distract the media from Autopilot stories? 

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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