Big self-driving hardware news as Tesla registers a new radar unit with the US Federal Communications Commission.

Does Tesla’s brave U-turn on radar signal a more sensible approach to self-driving?

Thanks to Angelos Lakrintis on the Linkedin Self Driving Cars group for alerting us to the news that Tesla is apparently doing a major U-turn and re-embracing radar.

The EV specialist famously stopped fitting radar to new cars in May last year, following years of protestations by CEO Elon Musk that self-driving could be best achieved with cameras and silicon neural nets alone.

Self-driving hardware

Last year, The New York Times reported: “Musk has repeatedly instructed the company’s Autopilot team, which works on self-driving car tech, to ditch radar and use only cameras instead.

“The reason for this approach, Musk said in October, is to focus the data that’s being presented to the car’s computer systems.

“Tesla’s camera-based “vision” self-driving tech “became so good,” Musk said, that adding radar data was actually giving the system more information than it needed.”

Musk on self-driving at FT Future of the Car Summit 2022
Musk on self-driving at FT Future of the Car Summit 2022

Indeed, he was still making the point at last month’s FT Future of the Car Summit 2022, saying: “Anyone who’s driven a car for any length of time, once you have some years of experience, the cognitive load on driving a car isn’t that high.

“You’re able to think about other things, listen to music, have a conversation and still drive safely. So, it’s not like matching everything a human does.

“It is matching enough of the silicon neural nets to at least be on a par with the biological neural nets to enable self-driving, and I think we’re quite close to achieving that.”

Well, a week is a long time in politics, they say, and on 7 June Tesla registered a new radar unit with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Radar for self-driving

It has been widely reported that senior Tesla engineers have long disagreed with Musk on radar, pressing home many of the points made by Clem Robertson, CEO of R4dar Technologies, in our very first Zenzic CAM Creator profile.

“Each technology has its shortcomings,” Robertson said. “GPS is no good in tunnels; the cost of 5G can be prohibitive and coverage is patchy; cameras aren’t much good over 100 metres or in the rain, lidar is susceptible to spoofing or misinterpretation; digital maps struggle with temporary road layouts – but together they create a more resilient system.

“Radar only communicates with itself, so it is cyber-resilient. It works in all weathers. It is reliable up to 250-300m and very good at measuring range and velocity, while the latest generation of radars are getting much better at differentiating between two things side-by-side.”

This latest development suggests that Tesla is now on-board with such thinking.

According to Drive Tesla Canada, the registration allows Tesla to sell vehicles with the new units installed in the US. It speculates that they could form part of the highly anticipated Hardware 4.0 (HW4).

“Tesla currently builds vehicles with HW 3.0, otherwise known as the Full Self-Driving (FSD) computer,” it notes. “It is believed that Tesla will introduce the next-generation computer with the launch of the Cybertruck.

Will Tesla Cybertruck have HW4 for self-driving?
Will Tesla Cybertruck have HW4 for self-driving?

“Whether Tesla will offer existing customers a free upgrade to the new computer, like it did after the introduction of HW3, remains to be seen.”

Given Tesla was previously such a strong advocate for binning radar, it will be interesting to see whether others also back away from the idea.

For instance, Auto Evolution reported in April that Michael Benisch, VP of Engineering at Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet, believes a camera-only approach is possible.

Perhaps tellingly, Toyota itself always remained committed to using multiple sensors, both lidar and radar, on all vehicles offered for sale.

Musk himself calls the motor industry “hyper competitive” and with all major vehicle manufacturers now embracing electric, Tesla’s old USP is no longer unique.

If this U-turn on radar is a sign of a maturing, perhaps more sensible Tesla, its rivals should probably be pleased and worried in equal measure.