Just over a month ago, Tesla caused a stir by announcing that it was dropping the use of radar for its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features in the Model 3 and Y. This came on top of the company’s long-standing disavowal of LiDAR for autonomous systems as well. Can Tesla really deliver on Elon Musk’s perpetual promise of self-driving cars with just cameras?
This is not a decision to disable radars on existing cars, at least not yet. But it does mean that new Model 3 and Y production cars in the USA will no longer be equipped with this kind of sensor. This initially led to both Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety downgrading the safety of the vehicles. However, the Tesla Model 3 was retested and has nowhad its top safety rating reinstated.
Tesla is calling its new camera-based autonomous driving system Tesla Vision. In its official announcement, Tesla stated that removal of the radar would temporarily limit a couple of autonomous features. Autosteer would only work up to 75mph and would enforce a longer distance to the car in front, while both Smart Summon and Emergency Lane Departure Avoidance would be disabled altogether. Tesla claims these will be re-enabled as the Tesla Vision camera-only versions are rated by NHTSA “in the coming weeks”.
In the world of “normal” cars, adaptive cruise control is the main reason for the inclusion of a front radar, and one of the explanations why this is usually an expensive option on cars that don’t come with it as standard. A radar’s main function, just as it was originally used for in the Second World War, is to track the location and distance of external objects. This allows an adaptive cruise control system to judge the distance to the car in front and engage the brakes if it is too close. In heavy noise-to-tail traffic, all you have to do is steer.
It is worth noting that, for the time being at least, the Model S and X as well as all cars destined for markets outside North America will still be equipped with radar until Tesla determines “the appropriate time to transition those vehicles to Tesla Vision”. This is also allegedly because the Model 3 and Y provide a much larger pool for testing to ensure Tesla Vision works as intended. But it does also raise the question how the company will implement full autonomy in the future with just cameras.
Elon Musk has been incredibly bullish about how soon Tesla cars will become fully autonomous, most recently claiming they would be “close to Level 5” by the end of 2021, whereas official communications only state they are Level 2. However, despite the current trials of Full Self Driving on City Streets in select US states, this dream remains some way away.
If you look at the test cars from other companies being used to trial fully autonomous driving, such as Google Waymo’s Jaguar I-Pace vehicles, they bristle with different sensors. The Waymo car has two front radars and one rear one, a 360 LiDAR on the top, LiDAR on the front, and another on the rear. Going the opposite direction to Tesla, Volvo recently announced it would be adding LiDAR to its fully electric XC90 successor. The full suite of sensors Volvo has presented include cameras, ultrasonics, LiDARs and radars.
Tesla intends to cover all the jobs these perform with just cameras. Theoretically, this could be possible. After all, current vehicles already use a driving system primarily enabled by vision. Human operators provide this system, able to judge distance, recognize road markings and the behavior of other road users, and even use subtle signs to guess what other drivers are about to do. Tesla clearly thinks it can do the same using its cameras, with sufficient training of its autonomous systems to interpret the visual information it is receiving.
It is a typically contrary move from Elon Musk and Tesla. With such radically new and rapidly developing technology as autonomous driving, nobody can predict if the bet will pay off. After all, no car could even drive across a desert on its own until 2005, and now there are robot taxis driving around Schenzenand Waymo’s robot taxi service opened at the end of 2020 in Arizona.
You have to ask why Tesla is risking falling behind the autonomous systems already in operation by opting for cameras only, but the clue comes when you consider the company’s future plans. When Elon Musk infamously announced his company would be producing a $25,000 car by 2023, he made another claim – that it would have autonomous capabilities. To do that in such a cheap vehicle, Tesla needs to keep the costs down. LiDARs are expensive, and radars also add costs, but cameras are cheap. Tesla Vision could be part of a gamble on making autonomous driving as low cost as possible, so even the most budget-conscious vehicles can have it.