Tesla’s Autopilot system is the standard of the world, but the hardware that makes it possible has been around for nearly 2 years. Things are moving very, very quickly in the field of autonomous driving, with every major manufacturer rushing to get in on the game. What was gee whiz stuff two years ago is merely ordinary today.
Many of the latest systems use LIDAR to enhance their self driving capabilities. LIDAR is much like radar, except that it uses lasers instead of radio signals. Elon Musk is not a big fan of LIDAR. Last October during a press conference announcing the automatic lane change feature that was added to Autopilot, Musk said, “I don’t think you need LIDAR … you can do this all with passive optical and then with maybe one forward radar. I think that completely solves it without the use of LIDAR. I’m not a big fan of LIDAR, I don’t think it makes sense in this context.”
But Musk and Tesla may have had their attitudes readjusted by the recent death of Joshua Brown on a Florida highway while using Autopilot. Apparently, the hardware installed on his Model S was unable to distinguish the side of tractor trailer from and overhead sign. Brown’s car crashed heavily into the trailer, which sheared off the top of the car, killing Brown in the process. There are suggestions that Autopilot was blinded by the glare of a hot Florida sun off the side of the all white truck.
Tesla’s Autopilot also has difficulty detecting objects below the bumper and above the car. When the company rolled out its Summon feature, which lets the car park and unpark itself remotely, the company was quick to warn drivers that it would not notice bicycles hanging from the rafters of a garage or small objects on the floor of the garage. Consumer Reports soon pointed out that the phrase “small objects” could include young children.
Just this week, a regular member of the Tesla community named simply Tesla Owner spotted a white Model S outfitted with a large LIDAR system mounted on the roof driving around Palo Alto. The car has a large Stanford University logo on the back window and a Stanford license plate frame. Stanford has its own autonomous driving research program. But the deception was unmasked when the car was observed driving in the back gate at Tesla Motors headquarters.
In May, Darren Schulberg snapped photos of a Model S recharging near Pittsburgh that had a cobbled together array of extra cameras and sensors bolted to the front end. The arrangement was anything but pretty, but it appeared to be mounted at precisely the height of the front fascia on the Model X. Adding more cameras would add depth perception to the Autopilot system, something it lacks at the moment.
Rumors are swirling about an Autopilot 2.0 being in the works. The expectation is that the new Model 3 will have a much more advanced self driving system. The S and X cars may get the upgrade before the 3 goes on sale.
There is a suggestion that the death of Joshua Brown on May 7 may have been the impetus to upgrade the Tesla Autopilot system sooner rather than later. Brown’s death was unfortunate, but it did shine a spotlight on some of the limitations of the Autopilot — a spotlight that Tesla in no way wanted. Despite Musk’s antipathy toward LIDAR, it seems like future Teslas will have laser sensors as part of their autonomous driving hardware package.
That ungainly looking device on top of the white Model S is not likely to make it into production. There are companies that now offer LIDAR in packages small enough to fit inside a side view mirror.