Tesla CEO Elon Musk Discusses the Need for Autonomy Regulation

With vehicle autonomy rapidly advancing, Musk brings up quite a few good points about regulation.

byRob Stumpf| PUBLISHED Jul 19, 2017 10:47 AM
Tesla CEO Elon Musk Discusses the Need for Autonomy Regulation

The world of cars as we know is changing. Cars are becoming much more appliance-like, connecting themselves to giant neural-networks to feed data back to big brother so that they can improve the way they work and function in our lives. For many, this is a scary thought. For others, the convenience encourages them to willingly participate in something one might expect to have read in George Orwell's 1984. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently sat down at the National Governors Association's 2017 Summer Meeting to discuss the future of autonomy and address some of his greatest fears revolving around it, because it might be happening a lot sooner than you think.

We're losing access to our "humanly connected" driving experience. Autonomous cars aren't going to take over this very moment and remove the steering wheel from in front of us (though Musk has gone on record saying that the future may very well hold that to be true if autonomy becomes advanced enough), but that we're entering an era where enthusiasts feel that the soul is being ripped from their cars. Buying a brand new car with three pedals or one that a driver can skid around a corner with ease is becoming rarer with each new generation of cars. And it hurts. Maybe that's why the fight towards electric and autonomy is so brash between enthusiasts and electric car adopters.

The chart below shows different levels of vehicle autonomy. Level 0 is the autonomy found in most cars on the road today: nothing. You, the driver, are responsible for everything in front, behind, and surrounding you. Level 1 is basic assistance, like automatic braking if the car in front of you stops short. Level 2 is akin to a Tesla, being able to stay in a lane on the highway and react to nearby threats proactively, but still requires the human element on many deciding factors. As of today, Level 3 autonomy is not in-use for any mass-produced consumer vehicles, though some cars do ship prepared to upgrade in the future.


So if the shift is being forced upon us by manufacturers, we need to be receptive to the idea of governmental regulations. Musk stressed that he is against over-regulation several times throughout the event, but brings up a good point: If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would suddenly disappear, would you trust Boeing and other airplane manufacturers to not cut corners to save money on building planes?

Regulation affects adoption

According to the video below, Musk believes that it is simply a matter of time before all transportation (with the exceptions of rockets) will make the shift to electrification. How soon is likely determined by the economic curve of fossil fuels, as well as the vested stake already deeply rooted into most gasoline powered vehicles today. Since environmental impact is not reflected in the price of gasoline, the only thing that can push electric adoption rates forward is market demand for a desirable product or increased regulation. He adds that these financial incentives slowing down the progress of EVs are something he personally believes is morally wrong.

Sure, we can't forget about technology and the production of batteries. In my opinion, our charging infrastructure (which is growing) and efficiency of consumer batteries found in automobiles still have a long way to go before we can reliably and effortlessly make long trips with minimal charging delays in an EV. Henrik Fisker has dabbled with the use of supercapacitors in his newest EMotion sedan, but the tech just isn't quite there yet.

EV Adoption projections, via the International Energy Agency

Within ten years, he expects at least half of all consumer vehicle production will be electrified in some way within the United States, and as a result, almost all vehicles produced will feature some form of autonomy. But just because the technology is new doesn't mean that all vehicles on the road will suddenly be a plug-in, robot-driven appliances. New vehicle production represents about 1/15th of all vehicles on the road. It will take another 5-10 years for the majority of vehicles on the road to become EV or Autonomous. Within 20 years, the majority of vehicles on the road will be full autonomous, which can be achieved at the current rate of development.

Regulation affects vehicle safety

Electrification and automation have seemingly gone hand-in-hand up until this point, so if manufacturers are going to continue to shift their focus on electrification, you can believe that autonomy is right there with it. If vehicles are indeed going to be more autonomous, safeguards need to be put in place to protect the consumer. Some lawmakers have already begun to address this topic, attempting to bring regulation into the mix without fully understanding the consequences of what they're asking for.

Musk said that the biggest threat to any autonomous vehicle manufacturer is a fleet-wide hack. He believes that if a vehicle manufacturer would experience a large breach in security, it could effectively bring the company to its knees, especially in such an early time when the technology is so new. Though this has already happened in a controlled environment with a Jeep, it is a threat to take seriously should it occur on a much larger scale. To protect against this, Tesla has worked very hard to layer security. The electronics, the powertrain, braking, and effectively every other large component on a Tesla has its own individualized encryption. If an attacker gains access to one function of the car, it's unlikely that they will be able to use the same credentials or attack to gain access elsewhere due to this layering approach.

With Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication becoming more widely adopted by manufacturers, soon cars will from a large mesh of networks on the road. They will discuss traffic, the behavior of other vehicles around them, and use the collected data to perform certain predictive actions like re-routing around traffic or preemptively braking to avoid a collision caused by a car a few hundred feet ahead. Manufacturers still seek federal regulation over this, as this still remains to be a hot-topic with no true standard other than a gentleman's agreement. If one manufacturer decided to go proprietary and segregate other brands from their V2V stream, what's stopping them right now?

Regulation and Economic Impact

In the meeting, the attendees looked for some sort of takeaway from the event, something they can bring home that is relevant to their constituents and will be able to help in the forward momentum of EV adoption. Musk was quick to present the attendees with the push for regulation, urging them to make it happen proactively rather that reactively. He went on to recommend having a committee assign a regulatory agency that will work with existing manufacturers to gain insight into existing AI and then regulate based on what they learn, not take stabs in the dark to attempt an industry which they have no knowledge about.

On the topic of economic impact, Musk presented the necessity of reasonable regulations, citing China as a prime example. The Chinese government wants to lead the electric car revolution, and even set forth requirements for 8% of vehicles to be electrified in some way by 2018. They recently agreed to push this back until 2019, as auto manufacturers stressed that they could not accomplish this feat. This is a prime example that auto manufacturers are fairly resilient and will not jump ship to unregulated countries, unless regulations are so overbearing that they have no choice.

“Robots will be able to do everything better than us.”

Elon Musk

But why now? What has caused such a flash rush in the market to automate everything? Musk said that the answer to companies rushing into developing AI without regulation is a matter of competition.

This is really like the scariest problem to me [...] Companies have to race to build AI or they will be made uncompetitive. Essentially if your competitor is racing to build AI, they will crush you

Elon Musk

He also warned that a noticeable sum of jobs could be lost to automation should the industry progress as quickly as anticipated. Goldman Sachs agrees with this, formally publishing a report stating that nearly 300,000 jobs per year could become obsolete due to autonomy. Even Uber hasn't been shy about its drivers being merely placeholders until autonomy can replace them as well.

It is important to take this shift in the industry very seriously. Not only will it disrupt how we, as enthusiasts, interact with our daily drivers, but will also affect how the world is formed around us. Watching this change will be one of the most interesting successes or failures of rapidly advancing technology in our lifetime. You can watch Elon Musk's full conversation in the video below: