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Elon Musk Says Tesla Vehicles Will Drive Themselves in Two Years, by 2018


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It's easy to make self-driving cars work in some cases.

It's hard to make them work in every case.

In Elon Musk’s world, “easy” is used to describe problems many might consider impossible—or at least very difficult to solve. Producing a fully autonomous vehicle that can operate in any condition and on any road, for example, is easy-ish. And Tesla Motors, the all-electric automaker that Musk heads, is two years away from achieving it.

“I think we have all the pieces, and it’s just about refining those pieces, putting them in place, and making sure they work across a huge number of environments—and then we’re done,” Musk told Fortune with assuredness during his commute to SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., where he is also CEO. “It’s a much easier problem than people think it is. But it’s not like George Hotz, a one-guy-and-three-months problem. You know, it’s more like, thousands of people for two years.”

A profile of super hacker Hotz recently appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek. In the article, Hotz revealed he built a self-driving car in his garage in about a month and called the vision chip technology developed by Mobileye—and used by Tesla—”absurd.” He also said Musk had proposed giving him a lucrative contract if his technology outshined Mobileye. In a statement issued in response, Tesla said it’s sticking with Mobileye and rebutted some of Hotz’s challenges about autonomous cars.

Musk doesn’t sound angry as he explains the differences between what Tesla is doing and Hotz’s self-driving car. But there’s a hint of irritation in his voice—perhaps because he’s spending so much time defending Tesla’s product, instead of working on it.

“Demoware is easy; production software is hard,” Musk says. “It’s easy to do a cool demo, it’s hard to put something out. Especially software that’s going to work on millions of different roads all around the world in a wide range of circumstances—in winter, in summer, in rain, in dust—there’s a world of difference there.”

“George is an amazing hacker, but you don’t make production software by hacking. A hack does not work, a hack crashes.”

A Tesla employee initially brought Hotz to Musk as a possible recruit to the company. During the course of their discussions, Hotz told Musk he would come up with a vision solution better than Mobileye’s.

“I expressed some skepticism here, like, look Mobileye has got hundreds of engineers and they’ve been working on this problem for quite awhile and I think they’re pretty smart guys,” Musk says. “He wanted to make a bet, and he said ‘well how much is that worth to you?’ And I said, ‘well I mean if it were true, it would be worth millions of dollars, but I don’t think it’s true.'”

The proposed bet was that a car using Hotz’s solution would be able to stay in lane for the length of Interstate 405 from Los Angeles to San Diego. Musk says he ultimately declined because while he suspected Hotz could make it work for one stretch, he didn’t think the product would work on roads and highways everywhere, all the time.

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