Tesla Removing Radar From Autopilot System Is a Middle Finger to the Industry

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Photo: YouTube screenshot, modified
Ever since Tesla introduced its Autopilot suite, Elon Musk made it very clear that EVs will never use a LiDAR sensor, despite the fact that the rest of the industry working on autonomous cars was relying on the technology.
Musk never claimed that LiDAR was bad; he just said it was big, heavy, and expensive. Well, modern laser-based sensors are neither of those three, so what's his angle these days? He also said that LiDAR can't see through fog or heavy rain, something the radar can. That makes more sense because a system relying on concentrated rays of light will probably always struggle when traveling through a busy medium. Luckily, radars don't have that problem, so it's good that Tesla can equip its cars with those.

Except it won't for much longer. Tesla announced it is "continuing the transition to Tesla Vision," and therefore, Model 3 and Model Y vehicles built for the North American market will no longer be equipped with radar. The effect is virtually immediate, as the release says it applies to deliveries in May 2021.

So, where to begin? It is probably the biggest middle finger Musk has showed to the rest of the industry so far, and he's shown plenty. Not only does he not cave in and opt to use a LiDAR, but the company even drops its other, perfectly good type of non-visual sensor. Exactly how having a radar was detrimental to Tesla trying to achieve full autonomy is hard to guess, and guess we must since there's no official info for the reasons behind the decision.

A good guess would be that Musk is trying to replicate the way humans navigate, by relying on their vision. Except the AI brain will receive a 360-degree picture around a vehicle, so it'll have way more information about everything that's going on around it so it can take the best course of action at any time. A radar, like a LiDAR, could potentially provide conflicting information to what the cameras saw, causing confusion for the AI brain and making the decision process more complicated than it needs to be.

On the other hand, you can't escape the fact that a LiDAR would have prevented nearly all Autopilot fatalities so far since most of them were caused by hitting a stationary object the cameras and the radar failed to register. And since AI needs to learn everything about our world from scratch, similar situations are bound to occur in the future.

Tesla acknowledges that but, as usual, is pretty bullish about its ability to iron out any problems. "For a short period during this transition, cars with Tesla Vision may be delivered with some features temporarily limited or inactive," the company's release reads, listing Autosteer, Smart Summon, and Emergency Lane Departure Avoidance as three of them. However, it also claims it'll take care of everything "in the weeks ahead" and restore full functionality via over-the-air updates.

Another slightly worrying aspect is that people who ordered their cars thinking they would come with radar installed will find out there's been this slight change of plans via their Tesla Accounts ahead of delivery. It'll probably be something like "this is how things stand, take it or leave it." And plenty of people will take it because Tesla can apparently get away with murder, figuratively speaking.

Tesla chose the Model 3 and Model Y to be the first ones to ditch the radar for the simple reason that they're the company's highest sellers. That means they'll provide much more data for Tesla to process and come up with ways to enable all the features that will initially be disabled or limited as quickly as possible. Rest assured, every other Tesla model will soon follow suit.
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About the author: Vlad Mitrache
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"Boy meets car, boy loves car, boy gets journalism degree and starts job writing and editing at a car magazine" - 5/5. (Vlad Mitrache if he was a movie)
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