Tesla Spotted Testing Lidar System With Model Y

Tesla has been spotted using one of Luminar’s lidar systems on one of its Model Y vehicles. Elon Musk had previously expressed disdain for the lidar system and its ability to create a 3D map of its surroundings. However, it has now inked a deal to integrate the lidar system into its efforts to develop a fully autonomous self-driving vehicle.

So far, Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving software has relied on a series of cameras mounted on the interior and exterior of the vehicle. However, Tesla may be interested in exploring other options in the wake of safety concerns following events like a fatal crash in Texas in which authorities initially said that the Autopilot might have been engaged. This later turned out to be false, though this has not stopped some members of the United States’ Congress from pressuring regulators to take “corrective actions” against Tesla. A Californian man was also caught riding in the back seat of a driverless Tesla that had its driver assist program activated.

Available images of the lidar-equipped Model Y were captured in Palm Beach, Florida. It resembles a top-mounted rack of the sort commonly used to carry camping gear or kayaks. The Model Y has a manufacturer’s plate registered in California that is similar to the ones that had been spotted on test models of the Cybertruck.

Based on Musk’s past comments on the lidar, though, it’s unlikely that Tesla will change its stance on the lidar based on data from a single vehicle.

“In my view, it’s a crutch that will drive companies to a local maximum that they will find very hard to get out of,” he said in a 2018 earnings call.

Due to this stance, Tesla has focused on what it calls “passive optical recognition” that rely on cameras that are less expensive than the lidar system. With the right setup, it’s possible to use a multiple-camera system to produce “three-dimensional vision” in the same way that the brain can combine images from both eyes to produce depth perception. With improving pixel resolution and inexpensive cameras, this type of system is seen as potentially more cost-effective than lidar systems. That, and existing cameras mounted on a Tesla vehicle won’t get in the way of camping or kayaking enthusiasts who want a convenient way to haul their gear.

More recently, Elon Musk admitted that SpaceX had developed its own laser system to assist with operations related to the Dragon spacecraft. He indicated that he would like to move away from radar, saying that “We believe that a vision-only system is ultimately all that is needed for full autonomy.”

Part of his willingness to at least try the lidar system might be sparked by recent tensions with China, which banned Teslas from parking at state-owned or -leased facilities due to concerns that its cameras could capture footage of sensitive activities. Tesla denies that the cameras are active in China or that they would be activated if the customer hasn’t opted in for Autopilot or Full Self-Driving.

Some pundits have expressed concern that the internal, and sometimes external, cameras could violate privacy for passengers in a Tesla. On the flip side, the cameras could prove valuable for capturing video evidence of vandals that damage a Tesla vehicle. The cameras have recently been instrumental for capturing a suspect in a series of hate crimes that included slashing or stealing the tires of vehicles owned by members of a primarily African-American church in Missouri, for instance. The suspect is also facing arson charges in relation to a series of suspicious fires, the last of which gutted the church.

Luminar recently split from a SPAC using a legal maneuver known as a reverse merger, which allowed it to go public on its own. Its stock price jumped at the news that one of its systems was spotted on a Tesla Model Y, which indicates that Tesla might be starting to thaw toward the idea of using lidar or a similar system.