Tesla wants to end fossil fuel use, make self-driving cars 10X safer

And the company is planning to make a pickup truck

Tesla CEO Elon Musk today posted the second phase of his company's master plan for the future, which includes integrating rooftop solar power with battery storage, expanding auto sales to all markets and making self-driving cars 10 time safer than those driven by humans.

The new phase of the company's vision comes a decade after his first, which outlined creation of a low-volume vehicle that would "necessarily" be expensive in order to fund future "affordable" vehicles and to provide solar power.

SolarCity solar PV installations SolarCity

Workers for SolarCity install rooftop solar on a house.

"Part of the reason I wrote the first master plan was to defend against the inevitable attacks Tesla would face accusing us of just caring about making cars for rich people," Musk said in his blog. "The point of all this was, and remains, accelerating the advent of sustainable energy, so that we can imagine far into the future and life is still good.

"By definition, we must at some point achieve a sustainable energy economy or we will run out of fossil fuels to burn and civilization will collapse."

Integrating rooftop solar power with battery storage

Last month, Tesla announced its plan to buy the leading U.S. consumer rooftop solar installer, SolarCity.

Musk is also the co-founder and chairman of SolarCity, which is run by fellow co-founder and CEO Lyndon Rive and his brother, CTO Peter Rive. Tesla has been producing residential and commercial batteries to store power generated by the rooftop solar panels. SolarCity, in turn, has been selling those batteries as part of a solar power system.

powerwall mounted photo Tesla

A Powerwall lithium-ion battery mounted on a garage wall with a Tesla Model S.

Tesla's partially operational $5 billion Gigafactory outside Reno, Nevada will by 2020 produce 35 gigawatts (a gigawatt is one billion watts) of battery capacity, with the objective of driving down the per kilowatt hour (kWh) cost of battery packs by more than 30% through economies of scale.

Tesla gigafactory Tesla

An artist's rendition of the Tesla Gigafactory, which is nearing completion outside of Reno, NV.

Today, a lithium-ion battery pack is one of the most expensive components of a Tesla vehicle.

Tesla trucks

In addition to consumer cars, Tesla is planning to produce three other types of electric vehicles: a consumer pickup truck, a heavy-duty semi-tractor trailer and an urban transport bus.

The semi-truck and bus are in early stages of development, Musk said, but both should be ready for unveiling next year.

"We believe the Tesla Semi will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate," Musk said.

Tesla's self-driving buses will likely be smaller than those used by most metropolitan systems today as they will be able to fit more passengers and the role of bus driver will likely transition to "that of fleet manager."

"Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses," Musk wrote.

Tesla autopilot Tesla

Tesla's Autopilot has automatic steering, lane keeping and automatic lane change.

While Tesla's self-driving vehicle dreams are well under way with Autopilot, its current semi-autonomous technology, the system has not been without significant snags.

Ongoing controversy

For the past month, Tesla has been at the heart of a media feeding frenzy after the company revealed that an owner of a Model S sedan was killed in May while the Autopilot feature was engaged. That accident was followed by two others allegedly involving Autopilot.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission are now investigating Tesla over the incidents.

Earlier this week, Musk tweeted that Tesla plans to make 'significant' upgrades to Autopilot, after having a "promising call" with its German auto parts supplier Bosch.

Under the new master plan, Tesla expects to create autonomous vehicles that will be 10 times safer than vehicles manually driven by humans. The future vehicles would include a fail-safe system that would ensure if any portion of the autonomous functionality broke down, the vehicle would still be safe to operate.

"It is important to emphasize that refinement and validation of the software will take much longer than putting in place the cameras, radar, sonar and computing hardware," Musk wrote.

Tesla Autopilot YouTube

This driver posted a video on Youtube showing his use of Autopilot in rural areas without his hands on the steering wheel.

Musk admitted, however, that regulatory approval of fully-autonomous vehicles would vary widely around the world, would likely take years to accomplish and require something on the order of six billion miles of testing. The current fleet of Tesla vehicles using the semi-autonomous Autopilot is being driven about three million miles a day, he said.

Tesla has emphasized that its Autopilot advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) is a public beta program, and that when it is used "correctly" it is already safer than manual operation of the vehicle.

"Once we get to the point where Autopilot is approximately 10 times safer than the U.S. vehicle average, the beta label will be removed," Musk wrote.

Tesla to operate its own fleet

Once Tesla achieves full-autonomous capabilities, it expects some portion of its cars to be dedicated to ride sharing, particularly in cities where demand exceeds the supply of privately owned vehicles.

"Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not," Musk wrote.

Sunrun Tesla battery system Sunrun

A Tesla Powerwall battery system as installed by Sunrun. The batteries can be installed inside or outside of a home.

The all-electric cars will be able to be summoned by riders using a smartphone app, and "once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else en route to your destination."

Car owners will also be able to earn income by allowing their self-driving vehicles to be added to Telsa's network and summoned for use like Uber drivers are today. After an owner is finished using the vehicle, a simple tap of a mobile app will open it up for use by the general public.

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Lucas Mearian

Lucas Mearian

Computerworld (US)
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