The ambitious goals of Elon Musk for autonomous car technology have aroused worldwide safety concerns, magnifying the tricky balance in self-driving car development. While autonomous cars are designed to make the roads safer, moving ahead too quickly could cause motorists’ lives to be in danger.

The Engineering Challenge of Self-Driving Cars

Few vehicle manufacturers have moved as swiftly as Tesla, a company that has now become known as the nation’s most valuable automotive company ahead of General Motors.

However, the Autopilot team has experienced difficulties with marketing and design decisions, dropping at least four leading managers and 10 engineers, according to over a dozen individuals who have worked on the project. Elon Musk’s announcement that he would lead the development of self-driving cars left many excited while making engineers anxious. Tesla’s Autopilot team hadn’t completed the design of a product that could reliably and safely control a vehicle without the operation of a human.

Tesla announced that the vehicle hardware disclosed in October would allow for complete self-driving in nearly all situations, with a probability of safety that’s at least twice as good as a typical human driver. The caveat is that the self-driving feature still may require software development and approval, and it’s unclear when each aspect of the feature will be functional.

Automation Stages

Tesla’s self-driving cars would feature six stages of automation, including:

  • Level 0: No Automation – Humans are in complete control of the vehicle.
  • Level 1: Driver Assistance – The self-driving software performs certain functions, such as cruise control, while allowing the driver to control the rest of the vehicle’s functions.
  • Level 2: Partial Automation – The car is capable of performing multiple driving tasks simultaneously, including accelerating and steering, but still needs the driver’s assistance.
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation – This stage is currently under development and allows the car to drive itself under some conditions while requiring the human to take control in certain circumstances.
  • Level 4: High Automation – Also under development, this stage enables the driver to refrain from driving in some locations and environments while the car itself performs all critical driving tasks.
  • Level 5: Full Automation – The final stage is also under development, and allows the driver to remain completely free of driving responsibilities while the car drives even better than the average human.

Working to Maintain a Balance

Tesla currently has over 100 people developing software and hardware, but the turnover has led to the hiring of over 35 people to join the group this year, with 50 hires last year. Tesla has attributed the fast turnover to competition for talent among startups, large technology companies, and automotive manufacturers.

There are many companies working on developing self-driving vehicles, including Ford Motor Co. and GM. At the moment, many of these companies plan to release vehicles that are autonomous, meaning that they can operate on their own under specific conditions, or semi-autonomous, which requires the driver to remain alert throughout the drive. Tesla has announced the release of semi-autonomous vehicles while developing autonomous vehicles because the company believes the current vehicles are capable of making the roads safer.

Musk and the Issues of Tesla

When Elon Musk became the chief executive of Tesla, upon the initial production of its first electric sports vehicle, the Roadster, he was already known for working long hours and even appearing on the factory floor for much of the time.

By October 2014, Tesla had developed hardware and subsequent software updates that allowed for certain automatic safety features such as braking and collision warnings. The next project became the self-driving car, which began production in 2015 under the team that Tesla called “Autopilot.”

While personnel such as veteran software engineer Robert Rose—who worked on SpaceX—rushed the Autopilot team, some engineers and suppliers attempted to make it clear that certain issues required more time. These issues included the amount of time a driver would have to regain control of the vehicle if the self-driving functionality failed, ways to keep drivers alert, and what would be required to enable the technology to work on every road.

Early test runs in 2015 indicated that the technology needed improvement, particularly when Tesla engineer Eric Meadows had to take control when the vehicle began veering into oncoming traffic.

Making the Future Safer for Drivers

While Tesla won’t release a fully autonomous car within the time they initially wanted, semi-autonomous vehicles that may make roadways safer are already hitting the roads. Engineers will continue to develop the self-driving technology that could significantly improve road safety, but for now, they have to maintain the balance between manual and automated vehicles as these developments progress.