Tesla's autonomy development: lumpy and fast or slow and smooth?

Elon Musk says that by the end of 2020 all Teslas produced since May 2019 will be capable of full self-driving with no one in the driver’s seat (and all Teslas produced since November 2016 will be eligible for a computer upgrade that will put them on par with newer cars). Many people have the intuition that if we were only about a year from full autonomy, the capabilities demonstrated in Teslas today would have to be close to full autonomy already. They therefore reject Elon’s timeline as ridiculous on its face. But this is not necessarily true.

Progress on autonomy could just as easily be lumpy as smooth. Driving capabilities could develop or improve as the culmination of a long process of research and development, capped off by a relatively quick phase of neural network training.

Elon’s timeline certainly may prove to be too optimistic, but I think the intuition that progress with be smooth and slow rather than lumpy and fast should be contemplated more deeply.

My article that elaborates on this idea:

I haven’t seen any examples of Tesla development being fast and lumpy in the past. Seems to be slow and lumpy.

As an example they have 600,000 cars to learn from. But their supposed cut-in detector works maybe 5% of the time before the vehicle is less than a foot already into your lane. That doesn’t instill me with confidence that if they can’t yet figure out how to leverage their data to reliably figure out that somebody with their blinker on moving toward your lane is about to come in…

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