Tesla CEO Elon Musk: Google's self-driving car is too costly

Elon Musk's company SpaceX is preparing to introduce Elon Musk's company SpaceX is preparing to introduce on May 29, 2014, a space taxi to take American astronauts to the International Space Station. This photo of Musk is from March 9, 2013. Photo Credit: AP / Jack Plunkett

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Elon Musk, the California billionaire who leads Tesla Motors Inc., said the electric-car maker is considering adding driverless technology to its vehicles and discussing the prospects for such systems with Google Inc.

Musk, 41, said technologies that can take over for drivers are a logical step in the evolution of cars. He has talked with Google about the self-driving technology its been developing, though he prefers to think of applications that are more like anairplanes autopilot system.

I like the word autopilot more than I like the word self- driving, Musk said in an interview. Self-driving sounds like its going to do something you dont want it to do. Autopilot is a good thing to have in planes, and we should have it incars.

Tesla, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is considering such technology as regulators and long-established automakers grapple with when and how it can be used to increase safety and driver convenience. Global automakers such as Nissan Motor Co. andregulators say fully autonomous vehicles may not happen for a decade, twice as long as Google expects.

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Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both investors in Tesla before its 2010 initial public offering, have been proponents, with their Mountain View, Calif.-based company demonstrating a driverless fleet of Toyota Prius hybrids equippedwith laser-radar devices mounted on the roofs.

Too Expensive

Googles approach builds on a push for the driverless-car technology long pursued by the U.S. militarys Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which held vehicle competitions for carmakers and research labs. Anthony Levandowski, product managerfor Googles self-driving car project, has said the company expects to release the technology within five years.

The problem with Googles current approach is that the sensor system is too expensive, Musk said. Its better to have an optical system, basically cameras with software that is able to figure out whats going on just by looking at things.

Musk is determined to bring the cost of Teslas cars down so that the company can sell to mainstream consumers. Teslas Model S sedan has a $69,900 base price, and Musk says the company still intends to squeeze expenses to offer a model for about$30,000 within a few years. The Roadster, the companys first offering, started at $109,000.

Tesla gained 3.2 percent to $61.39 at 9:38 a.m. New York time, up from yesterdays record $59.50 closing price. The shares soared 76 percent this year through yesterday, outpacing the 14 percent rise in the Russell 1000 Index. Tesla said it willreport its first profit from sales of all-electric Model S sedans when the company releases first-quarter results tomorrow.

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Google, in an e-mailed statement, declined to comment on Musks comments.

Googles Technology

Googles driverless technology is guided by Sebastian Thrun, former head of Stanford Universitys Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Thrun led the Stanford team that won a $2 million prize in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge of autonomous vehicles,finishing with the best time on a rugged 132-mile (212 kilometer) course in the Mojave Desert.

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Weve had some technical discussions with Google about its Light Detection and Ranging, or Lidar, laser tracking system, Musk said last week, noting that its an expensive approach that may not prove feasible, Musk said.

I think Tesla will most likely develop its own autopilot system for the car, as I think it should be camera-based, not Lidar-based, Musk said yesterday in an e-mail. However, it is also possible that we do something jointly with Google.

Autopilot System

While crash-avoidance systems that can alert a driver or apply brakes in advance of a wreck are coming to cars now, David Strickland, head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has said autonomous vehicles are a long way off.

Self-driving cars are the natural extension of active safety and obviously something we should do, Musk said.

Googles self-driving cars are currently allowed on public roads for testing purposes in Nevada, California and Florida.

Toyota Motor Corp., also a Tesla investor, in January showed a driverless test vehicle in Las Vegas equipped with a Lidar device, radar and cameras and sensors something more like the approach that Musk suggests.

Likewise, Toyota, the worlds largest automaker, wants to create a virtual co-pilot that helps drivers avoid accidents, rather than self-driving cars and trucks. Tesla isnt discussing driverless-car technology with either Toyota or Daimler AG,which is also a shareholder, Musk said. Self-driving vehicles arent a top priority at the moment.

Were not focused on autopilot right now; we will be in the future, Musk said. Autopilot is not as important as accelerating the transition to electric cars, or to sustainable transport.

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