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Meet Tesla’s Autopilot Team, Who Elon Musk Says are on the Verge of Fully Autonomous Vehicles

By Jade Cooper
Elon musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Credit: pantid123 / Shutterstock.com

Elon Musk announced on Thursday that Tesla is “very close” to developing cars that fully drive themselves without human oversight, known as level 5 autonomy.

Level 5 autonomy, which is yet to be achieved by anyone, means the capability for cars to navigate roads without any driver input.

“I’m extremely confident that level 5 or essentially complete autonomy will happen and I think will happen very quickly,” Musk said in a video speech at the opening of Shanghai’s annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference, according to Reuters.

tesla org chart

Musk also gave Tesla a 2020 deadline, which he has iterated previously, “I remain confident that we will have the basic functionality for level 5 autonomy complete this year,” he said.

Automakers and tech companies including major players, Google parent Alphabet's Waymo and General Motors' Cruise, are investing billions in the autonomous driving industry, all hoping to be the first to develop the technology, in an extremely competitive market. Apple, Ford, Daimler, BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, Lyft, Uber and Baidu, to name a few, are heavily invested in developing self-driving technology. Amazon officially joined the race earlier this month by acquiring autonomous vehicle startup Zoox for $1.2 Billion.

Thursday’s bold claim from Musk is an exciting development, as the other major players in the field are struggling to solve the complex problems of developing safe self-driving technology.

Tesla has recently become the highest-valued automaker in the world, as its shares surged to record highs and it overtook former market cap front-runner Toyota. It's been 10 years since the electric car company went public.

Tesla was first incorporated in July 2003 by two engineers, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. The next three employees were Ian Wright, Elon Musk, and J. B. Straubel, all of whom are named as co-founders. Musk is the only one who remains at the company.

Musk led the company's Series A funding round in 2004, but at the time he served as the company's chairman. It wasn’t until October 2008 that Musk became the CEO.

In October 2015 Musk unveiled, for the first time, Tesla's semi-autonomous self-driving system called Autopilot. The initial features included in the system were automatic cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and active emergency braking. The next software update in 2016 gave Autopilot-equipped vehicles the ability to self-park.

Musk made it clear in early 2016 that automation was the future for Tesla. During a shareholder meeting, Musk said that he saw a huge opportunity in "building the machine that makes the machine."

In 2017 he appointed superstar Stanford Computer Science PhD Andrej Karpathy as the director of artificial intelligence and Autopilot Vision at Tesla. In January 2019 Karpathy was promoted to Senior Director, where he leads the team developing the machine learning system used in Autopilot. Previously, he was a researcher at artificial intelligence group OpenAI, and was named one of the MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 for 2020.

Pete Bannon is the Director of Autopilot Hardware. He took over from Legendary chip architect Jim Keller who left Tesla for Intel just over a year ago. Bannon has been building processors since 1984, and prior to Tesla, co-led the development of Apple’s A5 to A9 chips. Prior to Apple, Pete was the VP of architecture and verification at PA Semi.

Meet the rest of Teslas team here.

These two executives are arguably the most people at Autopilot, but most people won’t have heard much about them. Tesla’s upper ranks include dozens of executives, most of whom are relatively unknown. Aside from it’s celebrity CEO, Tesla has always focused attention on its revolutionary products, rather than the people who make them.

Musk has many times expressed his dislike for rigid reporting lines, and actively discourages his staff from communicating up the chain only through their manager. The company continues to prioritize nimbleness and flexibility over a clear chain of command, even through experiencing mass growth.

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