Tesla Drops Use of Radar, Will Rely on Cameras for Autopilot

Tesla has dropped the use of radar in favor of a purely camera sensor system for the Autopilot on new Model 3 and Model Y vehicles in North America. According to Tesla’s blog, the camera system will be used for features like automated lane-keeping and traffic-adjusted cruise control. The move appears to have been initially announced in a March tweet by Elon Musk.

This news comes in the wake of a Florida resident capturing photos of what appears to be a test vehicle making use of Luminar’s lidar system on the streets of Palm Beach, Florida. Elon Musk had previously criticized the idea of using lidar for automated driving software, calling it a “crutch and a “fool’s errand.”

A switch to a purely camera system may be designed to save both money and computing power when compared to a system that includes radar. In a statement to shareholders, Tesla said that “a vision-only system is ultimately all that is needed for full autonomy.”

Some regulators and engineers may disagree with this assessment. Earlier this month, Tesla engineers quietly informed California’s DMV that Elon Musk overstates the capability of Full Self-Driving and it may not come out of beta this year, as Musk had claimed. Tesla’s official website includes the disclaimer that Tesla vehicle owners should remain alert and in control at all times when operating their vehicles, including when the Autopilot and Full Self-Driving software is active.

According to an internal memo written by a staff member at the California DMV and obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request, Tesla’s Full Self-Driving is currently regarded as being a Level 2 on Society of Automotive Engineers’ scale of automated self-driving vehicles. Level 5 self-driving vehicles would be capable of handling most conditions on the road with minimal driver input.

“The ratio of driver interaction would need to be in the magnitude of 1 or 2 million miles per driver interaction to move into higher levels of automation” than Tesla’s software is currently at, according to the internal memo.

Tesla’s driver assist programs had been blamed for some accidents, including a recent one in Texas that killed two men, although authorities later backtracked and said that the Autopilot likely wasn’t active at the time of the crash. The California Highway Partrol arrested a Californian man who was seen riding in the back seat of a driverless Tesla in an apparent attention-seeking stunt. Another California man who had recorded himself using Autopilot without his hands on the wheel reportedly died in an accident earlier this month. A Consumer Reports study did show that it is possible to trick the Full Self-Driving software into thinking that someone was in the front seat even when it was empty.

Tesla says that, while Autopilot makes the transition to a fully camera system, some features like Smart Summon and Emergency Lane Departure Avoidance may be disabled at the time of delivery. This will give the development team behind the Autopilot time to make adjustments to the system. Elon Musk says that updates to accommodate the removal of radar are expected to be released in about two weeks, though experts say that this could be delayed.

Most of Tesla’s competitors are making use of lidar or radar with the development of their self-driving vehicles. Despite Musk’s criticisms of lidar, experts say that these systems add an extra level of functionality to the sensor system of a self-driving vehicle and are especially useful in weather conditions in which visibility would be reduced. Tesla does intend to keep radar in the higher-priced Model S and Model X vehicles and has made no changes to Model S and Model Y vehicles made in China or meant for markets outside of North America.