Elon Musk is no stranger to taking science fiction ideas and turning them into reality. He's pioneered commercial space flight with SpaceX and has offered a possible means of high speed transportation with Hyperloop. Now, he's tasking his company Tesla Motors with another ambitious project: making its own automated car from scratch.
Musk said that 90 percent of the car's controls would be left to its computer system, as reported by Reuters. "Fully autonomous cars would take longer to develop," he said.
Karl Iagnemma, the director of the Robotic Mobility Group at MIT, said that Musk's track record and engineering skill is a huge boon for the autonomous vehicle community. "It's going to put increasing pressure on the field to move the technology forward," he told ABC News.
Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said that Tesla Motors' decision to not put all of a car's controls in the hands of a computer is on trend with other car manufacturers. "Full automation is still quite some time off," he said. "A human still needs to be in the loop and paying attention."
While it's difficult to get 100 percent of a car's controls automated, Iagnemma said that splitting it between the driver and the car's computer is not an insignificant bump in the road. "It may be very hard to ask a driver for assistance if the driver hasn't been paying close attention the entire time," he said. "One of the big questions in the field is how to handle this shared control between the vehicle and the human."
Even if the Tesla has a road-ready product in three years, it's not guaranteed that the public will welcome it with open arms. Sterling Anderson, the principal of Gimlet Systems and a colleague of Iagnemma's, said there is some resistance to automated automobiles. "Surveys show that while many people are open to the idea of an autonomous vehicle driving them to work, far fewer are willing to let one drive their child to soccer practice," he said.
But barring any legal barriers and consumer issues, Anderson thinks that Tesla Motors has what it takes to compete with other car manufacturers, as well as Google's own self-driving car project. "Three years is an aggressive deadline," he said, "But it's completely doable."
Google and Tesla Motors did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.
Tesla Model S cars are known for being pricey, but Rajkumar said that while making software to dictate the car's behavior is a big investment in research and development, it won't be as big an investment for consumers.
"At the end of the day, software doesn't cost anything," he said. "The cost is in the sensors and actuators. I expect that around 2020, we will have a sensor suite and computer costing $5,000 to $7,000."