Tesla Motors plans to develop an autonomous vehicle within three years that will drive "90 percent" of the miles typically driven by a human driver.
Tesla tipped its plans by posting a job listing for an "Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Controls Engineer" this week. Tesla CEO Elon Musk then confirmed the company's plans in an interview, where he said that Tesla would develop the self-driving technology internally, rather than buy and install it from a third-party company.
Google brought the concept of a self-driving car to the world three years ago, when it not only disclosed that it had developed a self-driving car, but that it had already driven several thousand miles without an accident. That, in turn, spurred development by companies like Nissan, which says it will build a self-driving car by 2020.(Google's Sergey Brin has suggested that such self-driving cars will be ready by 2017.) Mercedes has also tested self-driving technology, as has Audi, which demonstrated autonomous technology at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. Volkswagen, BMW, and Volvo, among others, have begun their own programs. Even parts-maker Continental has already developed and demonstrated self-driving technology using a custom Volkswagen Passat.
So while it's fair to say that self-driving technology is being heavily scrutinized by major automakers, exactly how they plan to implement the technology appears to vary by manufacturers and by purpose. Audi executives, for example, have said they don't intend to remove the joy of driving from the driver, and that the autonomous technology would only take over when the driver requests it, such as within the tedium of heavy traffic.
Musk appears to favor the opposite approach, where the majority of the driving would be handled by the car itself. It's not clear from Musk's interview whether he views this as a philosophical directive, or a simple acknowledgement that the majority of Tesla customers live in high-traffic locales such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Honolulu.
Google's Sergey Brin, however, also favors the autonomous people-mover approach. "Normally on a highway, cars take up a tiny fraction of the space," he said in Sept. 2012. "Mostly it's all air between you and the car in front of you and the sides of you and so forth. Self-driving cars can actually chain together, use the highways far more efficiently."
California has given the green light for Google, Tesla, and others to test its autonomous cars on the state's roadways, following Nevada. However, a driver must be in the driver's seat at all times, prepared to steer or brake in case of an emergency.
So while Musk's pronouncement is no hyperloop, that's a good thing. Tesla and Musk have proven an electric car can be both sexy and environmentally sensitive. With that track record, it looks like the race to a commercially available self-driving car is truly on.