Elon Musk is gunning to put autonomous cars on the road by 2023.
The D series of Tesla's Model S sedan, unveiled last week, features an autopilot function, but it's limited. The electric carmaker's chief executive said last Friday that self-driving technology will outpace the skill of human drivers in five to six years, however.
"I think we'll be able to achieve true autonomous driving, where you could literally get in the car, go to sleep and wake up at your destination," Musk said in an interview with Bloomberg TV's Betty Liu.
But he warned that it would take regulators another two to three years to approve the autonomous cars for use in public.
"I want to make sure that it's truly a lot safer than driving with a person," Musk said. "The standard for fully autonomous driving is going to be much greater than for a person, because if it's just equivalent that won't be enough."
The company first demonstrated its autopilot feature at a glitzy media event outside Los Angeles last Thursday.
It uses radar to detect vehicles near the car and comes equipped with a camera capable of reading road signs and adjusting speed accordingly. The car can also guide itself along lines on the street, turning automatically with the curves in the road. But it failed to wow Wall Street investors, who saw it as Tesla playing catch-up with traditional rivals Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti, which already offer similar features.
Far from the self-driving car prototypes designed by Google, Tesla's semi-autonomous function works like the autopilot used in airplanes, which requires human supervision.
"It's important for us to differentiate autonomous driving versus autopilot," Musk told Bloomberg TV. "We use the same term they use in airplanes, where there's still the expectation that there will be a pilot, so the onus is on the pilot to make sure the autopilot is doing the right thing."
For now, the company has other priorities. Tesla is slated to begin production on its Model X SUV next year. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup broke ground on a $5 billion "Gigafactory" in Nevada this year, which is expected to be the largest battery-making facility in the world by 2017.
"We're not going to wake up one day and it'll happen," Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at the automotive research firm Kelley Blue Book, told The Huffington Post, referring to fully autonomous cars. "It's going to be this slow progression, both legally and psychologically."