Will the Tesla Model 3 be the First Autonomous Car?

Courtesy of Tesla

Just after a much-hyped unveiling that turned into a wildly successful pre-order period for the Model 3 electric sedan, Tesla CEO Elon Musk offered a cryptic closing thought:

There’s mounting speculation among experts that the “next level” feature Musk is teasing for the Model 3, a feature expected to get its own big unveiling event, is autonomous operation.

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The New Yorker has offered a full roundup of the evidence. For a start, Musk has made repeated reference to the Model 3’s “steering system.” That could just be embellished tech lingo for a steering wheel—or it could hint at something genuinely radical.

Then there’s the notable coincidence that Musk has predicted Tesla would roll out fully autonomous driving within about two years—which is also the release timeline for the Model 3.

Most powerfully, the New Yorker argues that Tesla really is ready for autonomy, thanks to its approach to developing the technology. Google, the other serious pioneer of autonomous driving, has based its research on very expensive laser-based (“lidar”) sensors. Tesla has instead opted for cheap hardware sensors—cameras, ultrasound, and radar—heavily reliant on advanced software.

That choice in turn let Tesla offer an early version of the technology to buyers of its Model S and Model X cars, at a cost of just $3,000 retail. Those systems have had their kinks, but what matters is that they are, in effect, a test fleet that dwarfs competitors’—Google, for instance, has only around 80 autonomous vehicles in California, and a few others around the country.

That means Tesla (TSLA) almost certainly has more data for improving their software than Google (GOOGL) (pause here—how often do we get to say someone has more data than Google on anything?) And Tesla’s hardware is so cheap that with mass-market scaling, it could be either a very low-threshold add-on, or maybe even a standard feature, for the $35,000 Model 3.

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It’s unlikely that any initial autonomy package would be as comprehensive as Musk has opined. Regulation aside, city driving is still a long-term technical challenge. But autonomous highway driving is a much easier problem, and would be hugely attractive to legions of suburbanites with long commutes.

It’s hard to overstate the potential impact of an affordable car with robust autonomy hitting the market years before competitors—especially because if the Model 3 is anything like other Teslas, it will also simply be an excellent car (and, oh yeah, fully electric).

“Game changing” doesn’t even hint at the ramifications. Words like “nuclear,” “revolutionary,” and “colossal” come to mind. And let’s throw in “nightmare”—for pretty much every other car manufacturer.

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