Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said the technology to make a fully autonomous car will be ready in five or six years, and the result will be vehicles far less likely to harm occupants and others on the road.
“They will be a factor of 10 safer than a person [at the wheel] in a six-year time frame,” Mr. Musk said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Once the technology is available, it likely would take several more years, however, to work out the regulatory impediments, he said.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla is working on its own autonomous driving technology for its electric vehicles in addition to talking with auto suppliers. He said he expects more suppliers of autonomous vehicle parts to emerge in coming years.
“Tesla is going to do quite a bit of development itself,” he said. He didn’t mention any development partners by name.
Mr. Musk said “machine vision,” or the ability for a computer to quickly recognize objects, is the biggest technological impediment to fully implementing the technology.
Determining what an entire object might be when only a piece of it is visible by camera or radar is a key issue for the technology to determine the correct course of action for a vehicle. “It’s kind of scary: what’s going to become of us humans,” he joked.
In addition to his forecast about autonomous vehicles, he said his company expects to start generating strong “free cash flow beginning in the third quarter of 2015” and could pay for the construction of its planned battery factory without additional borrowing. Tesla raised $2.3 billion earlier this year through a convertible bond offering.
Tesla plans to build advanced batteries at a so-called gigafactory that could cost up to $5 billion, along with partner Panasonic Corp , in an industrial park 15 miles east of Reno, Nev.
Much of the free cash flow should come next year as Tesla ramps up production of its Model X sport utility vehicle, which is expected to begin deliveries early next year. Mr. Musk has told Fox Business that he expected to sell 15,000 next year or 20,000 if “things go especially well.”
Mr. Musk also said demand for the company’s current, $71,000 and up Model S isn’t a problem. “We have a waiting list, but not intentionally.”
He also said the company needed to build more service centers before it ramps up sales further.
Tesla isn’t working on vehicles beyond the Model X and a planned lower-cost sedan called the Model 3, but he said that “significant” product news is in the works.
When asked how the broader auto industry is progressing on developing a market for electric vehicles, he said “we’re behind.”
“The big car companies have been a lot slower than I thought,” he said.