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Elon Musk claims a million Teslas will drive themselves in a year. Safety advocates have concerns

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Tesla, under pressure to show it can generate profits on its main business of making electric cars, on Monday trumpeted a custom-designed computer chip to let its vehicles drive themselves.

Even with the new chip -- which comes with all new vehicles and can be installed in older ones -- Teslas still aren't yet fully capable of driving without human intervention. They now have "all hardware necessary," said Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive officer. "All you have to do is improve the software." The software will be updated over the air to allow full self driving by the end of the year, he said.

Tesla's aim is to create a fleet of self-driving cars that can be used as robot taxis in what Musk is calling the "Tesla fleet." The company will manage the apps and software. Tesla owners could let their cars out for robo-taxi use, with the company keeping a percentage of the revenue. Tesla would also operate its own robo-taxi fleet.

"We expect to deploy the first robo-taxis with no one in them next year," Musk said Monday. "I'm confident we'll get regulatory approval somewhere."

Tesla is one of many automobile manufacturers working on driverless vehicles, capable of driving themselves without a human behind the wheel. Tesla has the most aggressive timeline, aiming to enable its cars to drive themselves on public roads by the end of the year where regulations allow.

That has made Musk a target of other companies that are working on a more cautious path toward autonomous transportation. On Monday, a consortium of auto and tech companies working to improve the industry's image issued cautions via Twitter:

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"Most vehicles available for sale today offer driver assistance features; in all vehicles available for sale today, even those with the most advanced of these aids, the driver must always monitor and be prepared to control the vehicle," said the Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, or PAVE.

"It is damaging to public discussion about advanced vehicle technologies -- and potentially unsafe -- to refer to vehicles now available for sale to the public using inaccurate terms. This includes terms such as 'fully automated,' 'full self-driving,' 'fully autonomous,' 'auto pilot" or 'driverless,' which can create an inaccurate impression of vehicle capabilities that can put drivers and other road users at risk."

Consumer Reports put out a media statement immediately after the Musk event.

"We've heard promises of self-driving vehicles being just around the corner from Tesla before," said David Friedman, vice president of advocacy. "Claims about the company's driving automation systems and safety are not backed up by the data, and it seems today's presentations had more to do with investors than consumers' safety."

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