Elon Musk says “there will not be a steering wheel” in 20 years

If you thought the move to autonomous vehicles was going to take decades, think again. Tesla Founder Elon Musk spoke at the National Government Association Summer meeting and had...

If you thought the move to autonomous vehicles was going to take decades, think again. Tesla Founder Elon Musk spoke at the National Government Association Summer meeting and had some very interesting predictions about the future of transport. As we know Tesla’s vehicles already push the industry forward with Autopilot rapidly increasing in capability, soon moving from level 2 to level 3 of autonomy.

The march towards autonomous vehicles is expected to happen quickly, with Musk predicting that almost all vehicles sold in 10 years from now, would be fully autonomous (and EV). He went on to explain that vehicle lifespan is around 15-20 years, which means new vehicle production is around 5% of all cars, so after another 10 years (20 in total) a majority of the vehicles on the road will be driving themselves.

There will not be a steering wheel.

In 20 years, the concept of having a steering wheel, will be like having a horse. What he means by that is that when humans stopped using horses for their primary means of transportation (because cars were better), riding horses became a leisure activity. The same will be true of cars that require a driver. Like some people still want to listen to vinyl, some people will still want to drive. What’s going to be interesting to see is how the laws (and insurance) responds to this. I think its likely we’ll see leisurely drives take place on dedicated roads like race tracks, and the cost to do so is likely going to mean its a rare, sometimes kind of activity, not an everyday one.

Its easy to ride off Musk’s predictions as creative aspirations, but when you look at the automotive landscape right now, the writing is on the wall that makes the prediction entirely possible. Every auto maker that’s important is working on automation for their vehicles. While Google’s no-wheel experiment never translated to a production vehicle, it provided evidence the concept works and importantly, the societal acceptance of getting in a car without a wheel.

They were certainly early to the game and the technology isn’t quite there for full automation on the streets, but its happening fast, faster than most of us expected. Most companies are talking about shipping products into dealerships in 2020/2021, as the price curve comes down, its not hard to imagine a 2027 timeline where Musk would be right, where the majority of vehicles sold are autonomous. The technology would need to become so commodtised that its available in vehicles at $20,000 or less, not the $150-$200,000 we see today.

With so many companies throwing so much money into the R&D for autonomy and so many smart people across the globe working on this incredibly difficult problem, its going to get solved, there’s no question. Right now things like staying between the white line are done. Reading traffic signals and taking lanes are done. The harder problems are the 1 percents.. what happens when a Kangaroo jumps in front of you? Can the car deal with that safely without human intervention. Today the answer is no, but through the power of hardware and software vehicle platforms, custom built or purchased from the likes of Nvidia, it will happen, the only question is when.

Musk was also questioned on solar energy and America’s place versus China, as well as AI, and much more during the event. Its well worth your time to watch the video below if you want a window into the future.


Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis.