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Musk: Tesla autonomous car could arrive in two years

by Justin King

The consensus from established automakers points to 2025-2030.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has reaffirmed an extremely ambitious forecast for his company's autonomous vehicles.

"We're going to end up with complete autonomy, and I think we will have complete autonomy in approximately two years," he said in an interview with Fortune.

Many automakers already have prototype vehicles that operate fully autonomously, however there is still great uncertainty surrounding how long it will take to make the technology refined enough for commercial viability.

Tesla has already moved to place constraints on its semi-autonomous 'Autopilot' systems after a handful of owners performed dangerous casual experiments -- on public roads -- and successfully found the technology's limits. Musk acknowledges that plenty of work still needs done before the vehicles can effectively navigate in any conditions, including snowy roads or other challenging environments.

"The data is not yet there to support a fully autonomous vehicle," he admits.

Government regulators have been slow to respond to even minor technological advances in the automotive industry, and self-driving cars represent a significant leap without a legal framework to help guide development and implementation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken a cautious approach, while California's proposed rules require additional driver training and a special license.

Musk suggests regulators may take a more welcoming approach when it becomes "statistically clear" that an autonomous car is safer. Google has already released data showcasing the safety of its prototypes on public roads. Jaguar, meanwhile, has warned that any mishaps with a prematurely-launched autonomous system could "set the technology back a decade" for all automakers.

To help build data, Musk expects Tesla's eventual autonomous fleet to operate in a 'shadow' mode that logs both the vehicle's self-driving system and the human driver's actions. The information could provide validation that autonomous cars are safer than those fully under the control of a human driver.

Tesla's time-frame is extremely ambitious, as most automakers are expecting to launch semi-autonomous technology by 2020. Some do not expect fully autonomous vehicles to arrive on the market until 2030.

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