PALO ALTO, California — Tesla CEO Elon Musk mounted a strong defense for self-driving vehicles and pledged to develop a "self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning," as part of the company's ambitious new Master Plan revealed on Wednesday.
Musk predicted that all future Tesla vehicles will have the hardware necessary to be fully self-driving with "fail-operational capability, meaning that any given system in the car could break and your car will still drive itself safely."
His comments about self-driving vehicles coincide with an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration following a May 7 crash in which the driver of a Tesla Model S was killed while using the car's semi-automated Autopilot mode.
The feature allows the vehicle to automatically steer, change lanes and manage speed.
Musk explained why Tesla is deploying partial autonomy now in the new master plan, despite some calls that the automaker should disable the system in the current Model S sedan.
"The most important reason is that, when used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability," Musk wrote.
He added: "It would no more make sense to disable Tesla's Autopilot, as some have called for, than it would to disable autopilot in aircraft, after which our system is named."
The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has asked Musk to provide it with answers to questions about its Autopilot technology by July 29.
The committee wants to know whether the technology performed as intended following the May crash and Tesla's actions to educate consumers on the benefits and limitations of the technology.
Separately on Wednesday, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind told the Automated Vehicle Symposium 2016 that the federal government is pushing ahead with self-driving technology despite the Tesla fatal crash.
"Of course, we have to do everything we can to make sure new technology does not introduce new safety risks," Rosekind said in a speech. "But we also can't stand idly by while we wait for the perfect."
He added: "If we wait for perfect, we'll be waiting a very, very long time. How many lives might we be losing while we wait?"
Rosekind said he would not comment on the ongoing Tesla investigation and that it would "be inappropriate" to prejudge the outcome until all the facts are analyzed.
"I can tell you that no one incident will derail the Department of Transportation and NHTSA from its mission to improve safety on the roads by pursuing new lifesaving technologies," Rosekind said.
Edmunds says: Advocates of self-driving vehicles make their stand and insist that the technology faces widespread adoption.