Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has a complicated outlook when it comes to the future of "smart" machines. He's warned about the dangers of strong artificial intelligence, but he's all-in on the lesser forms of artificial smarts, like those at the core of Teslas. He's also bullish on self-driving cars, and this week Musk went so far as to declare that they may completely replace the cars we drive today.
"In the distant future, [legislators] may outlaw driven cars because they’re too dangerous," Musk said on stage at Nvidia's GPU Technology Conference, following the introduction of Nvidia’s Drive PX self-driving car computer. "We’ll take autonomous cars for granted in quite a short time."
Musk's projected time frames for adoption of such revolutionary innovations can sometimes be a little overly optimistic and hard to parse. To be clear, Musk sees a systemic transition from driven to autonomous cars taking a few decades, and he's also said that initially he expects regulators will want to see at least a few years worth of operational data that prove the safety and reliability of autonomous cars before giving them the green light.
"It’s not going to all transition immediately," Musk said. "It’ll take quite a while."
At the same time, Musk told members of the press on a call later in the week that Tesla will be sending out a software update for vehicle owners later this year. It will enable some semiautonomous features, basically allowing the vehicle to autopilot itself (but with the expectation that the driver is behind the wheel and still paying attention) on major highways. There's also an auto-summoning feature that enables the car to drive itself from a parking spot or garage to pick you up, but this only works on private property, as it would otherwise be illegal.
The software update is reflective of something else Musk explained at the Nvidia conference, which is that autonomous cars work well at very low speeds, as in a parking lot, but urban and suburban environments with pedestrians, cross-traffic and other obstacles is the most challenging aspect of implementing the technology.
"Once you get above 50 MPH in a freeway environment, it gets easy again," Musk explained.
He is confident that eventually we'll all see that his vision is better than today's status quo, both in terms of efficiency and safety. "I think it’s going to become normal, like an elevator," said Musk. "There used to be elevator operators and then we came up with circuitry so the elevator knew to come to your floor. Cars will be like that."