- Tesla is accelerating the development of self-driving cars.
- Tesla is going into a hiring spree for self-driving cars, but so is competitor Google, and the two companies are poaching each other's talent.
- Tesla has two important advantages: it is a car maker, and it has a reputation for superior technology and design.
- The self-driving car market will take off by the end of the decade and be huge, with room for many players.
In October Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) released its autopilot system as a software update for Model S sedans made after Sep. 2014, as well as Model X SUVs. The autopilot uses cameras, radar sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and GPS, to allow a car to autonomously change lanes, search for parking, parallel park, and adjust its speed based on traffic flow. We noted that Tesla's move confirmed the company's commitment to advancing incrementally, step-by-step, towards fully autonomous cars.
Now, Tesla is accelerating the development of its self-driving car technologies and going into a hiring spree. "Ramping up the Autopilot software team at Tesla to achieve generalized full autonomy," said the company's charismatic founder and CEO Elon Musk on Twitter. "We are looking for hardcore software engineers." Musk added that he will be interviewing people personally and Autopilot reports directly to him. "This is a super high priority," he said.
Business Insider notes that this is "a hugely important development" for Tesla and the auto industry, and Tesla provides "tremendous leadership" for electric and autonomous car makers. Musk would like to have the first electric, self-driving luxury Tesla cars on the roads before 2020. "My guess for when we will have full autonomy is approximately three years,” he said in a recent interview.
Of course, Tesla is not the only company pushing the development of autonomous cars. Other companies like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) betting on semi-autonomous cars and Toyota Motor Corp (NYSE:TM) betting on Artificial Intelligence (AI)-assisted driving. But the main competitor is Alphabet Inc-A (NASDAQ:GOOGL), now re-branded as Alphabet and committed to visionary, world-changing projects. The Internet giant set up its own auto company, Google Auto LLC, and hired John Krafcik, a 25-year car industry veteran who previously led Hyundai’s business in the US, to head the self-driving car project.
Now, Google and Testla are fighting a hiring war for the best talent. Robert Rose, the Autopilot team leader at Tesla who previously worked as Director of Flight Software for Musk's space transportation company SpaceX, left Tesla right after the release of the Autopilot in October and joined Google. Tesla's Autopilot team hired Liang Heng, a software engineer from Google’s Maps Street View team, at about the same time. Accurate digital maps are a very important component of self-driving car software, and it seems likely that Tesla wants to develop its own capabilities independent of Google.
Having Google as a competitor is certainly fearsome, but Tesla has two important advantages. One is that Tesla is already a leading car maker. "[Musk] doesn't need to construct a factory or develop an entirely new platform," notes Business Insider. "He just needs to hire some programmers." In fact, it can be argued that car hardware can only improve one small increment at a time, and software can make the difference. With a fleet of 90,000 cars on the road right now, which can be used as a vast test platform for incremental software development based on the Autopilot, Tesla has a big advantage over new entrants to the automotive game.
Another advantage is that, while Google isn't known for hardware excellence or luxury products with stylish design, Tesla has a solid reputation as a maker of luxury cars with superior hardware technology and design. Tesla's recent Model X, which has been defined as a "ludicrous" sport-utility vehicle, keeps the Tesla mystique flying. "The X is, in a word, stunning," noted a reviewer. "Its most amazing features are its mind-bending acceleration, gorgeous design, and amazing rear passenger doors. Tesla calls them 'falcon' doors, because they lift like the wings of a bird." Tesla users are passionately loyal to the brand, and can be expected to pay a premium price for the privilege of driving a Tesla.
All seems to indicate that the first fully autonomous self-driving cars will hit the road before the end of the decade, and their impact will be huge. Besides enhanced driving safety, self-driving cars could radically change cities by reducing the need for owning a car. In fact, fleets of self-driving cars on demand - autonomous Zipcar, or Uber without drivers - could pick up users in minutes at the tap of a phone app. Therefore, it seems likely that the self-driving car market will have room for many players, and Tesla's bet will pay off.