Tesla Autopilot with Lidar Explained


Tesla Autopilot with Lidar Explained

Tesla has been at the forefront of autonomous vehicles for quite some time, but since the beginning has avoided using lidar technology. This may seem odd to some because practically every other autonomous vehicle on the market uses this technology, so why not Tesla? Elon Musk has always been against the use of lidar technology.

Tesla Autopilot does not use lidar. Instead, Tesla uses a camera system. The camera system is connected with a computer within the vehicle. Tesla believes that lidar is not the way forward because it does not provide enough detail in its visuals.

Yet, recently, Tesla was seen testing some lidar technology. It can seem a bit confusing. However, understanding how it all fits together is important. Read on to discover everything you need to know about Tesla Autopilot, lidar technology, and why the two are often mentioned together.

Tesla Autopilot Explained

Self-driving cars are being talked about more each year because as technology progresses, so does the quality of the vehicle in question. One of the loudest voices, and for good reason, is Tesla. Tesla has been at the forefront of this conversation for years, and it is only recently that other companies are getting involved, too.

However, it is important to clarify that “self-driving” cars are not entirely self-driving, at least not yet. It can be a bit confusing when you hear the term “self-driving” because it signifies that you can sit back and relax and let the car do everything for you. However, this is not the case at all.

The driver is still in control in an autonomous car, though this may change in the future as the technology surrounding these vehicles gets better and better. Regardless, it is important to note how these “self-driving” vehicles work. Specifically, how do Tesla’s vehicles work? The answer is in their system known as the Tesla Autopilot.

Since Tesla is a key player in this arena, it is important to fully understand how their system for its autonomous cars works. There are some components of the Tesla Autopilot system that should be discussed. Mainly, the following:

  • What technology does Tesla use? Since Tesla does not use Lidar, it is important to know what they do use. Since all other companies do use Lidar, it can be a bit foggy as to what exactly Tesla uses.
  • Why does Tesla not use Lidar? Once the Autopilot system is explained, it is important to know the reasons behind Tesla’s decision to not use Lidar technology in its vehicles.
  • What can the Tesla Autopilot system do? Since there is no such thing (yet) as a fully self-driving car, it is important to know what exactly the Autopilot system can achieve for you while you are using it.

And, yet, this is only the beginning of understanding Tesla Autopilot and Lidar. However, it will form the basis to understand everything else that will follow. Once these elements are understood, it helps create a fuller picture, which in turn helps decipher the future of autonomous vehicles.

What Technology Does Tesla Autopilot Use?

Tesla’s Autopilot system has been around for years, but it is now included in all their new models. However, you must activate it to use it. However, you may wonder how exactly Tesla Autopilot works, especially since it does not use the same technology as practically all its competitors.

Instead of using lidar technology, Tesla Autopilot uses three key components to “see” the road around it as it is driving. The three components are:

  • Cameras. Each Tesla vehicle is fitted with cameras around the entire vehicle. The total number of cameras fitted on the vehicle is eight. These cameras created a full view around the perimeter of the car so that as you drive it is constantly aware of the world surrounding it.
  • Ultra-sensors. Ultra-sensors are fitted around the vehicle so that the car “knows” when other vehicles are near, when guardrails are near, and more. These sensors are a very important part of the Tesla Autopilot system.
  • Radar. Tesla vehicles are fitted with a radar system that is installed at the front of the vehicle.

It is easy to see how full a picture the Autopilot system can have of the world around it. These cameras, sensors, and radar systems are very powerful and can see between 60 meters up to 250 meters, depending on their placement. This is very important because when you are driving, you need to be aware of all that is occurring around your vehicle.

Each Tesla vehicle is also fitted with a powerful computer system they call “Tesla Vision.” This computer is directly linked with the components of the system and is the heart of the entire process of autonomy. However, there have been recent developments with how the Tesla Autopilot system will work moving forward.

Tesla Autopilot Will No Longer Use Radar

In 2021, Tesla announced that their new models, 3 and Y, would not use the radar system any longer. Instead, Tesla wants to use the cameras and sensors matched up with their Vision system. This is a big transition. Tesla is the only company that develops and manufactures autonomous vehicles that will use solely cameras to operate.

However, this will not be without its limitations. The idea, however, is an interesting one. Tesla believes that cameras are the closest thing to human vision. Therefore, if they can perfect the vision of the cameras they use and have the computer read that data properly, then they can develop a true self-driving car.

The limitations, however, are part of the process. For example, since Tesla will no longer have radar, some features will be limited, such as the autosteer function. The autosteer function will have a new limit of 75mph.

Why Does Tesla Not Use Lidar?

When you consider all the companies that are creating self-driving cars, you may begin to wonder why exactly Tesla will not use the same technology as everyone else. After all, would it not make sense to use the technology that seems like a standard operating procedure? However, Tesla has reasons why it will not use Lidar technology.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, has openly derided the use of Lidar. Simply, he does not believe in it at all, and he believes it does not make any sense to invest time and money into trying to implement the technology. He believes that cameras are the way forward with self-driving cars. Hence, Tesla does not use lidar technology since it is a technology that relies on sensors, not cameras, to “see” the world.

There are a few reasons why Tesla has taken such a firm stance on lidar technology. Some of these reasons include:

  • The cost to produce lidar is expensive.
  • Cameras, not lasers, are closer to how humans drive.
  • Lidar can be unreliable.
  • Lidar cannot adapt to new surroundings.

Now, these reasons, on the surface, may not seem that significant, but once you delve a little deeper into them it begins to make more sense. The reluctance of Tesla to implement the technology that seems to be standard elsewhere is logical.

Lidar is Expensive

The fact is that lidar is very expensive to produce. The cost of producing the technology can get as high as $10,000, which is a risk that Tesla does not want to take. And it makes sense, too.

If you believe that a particular technology is not the way forward then why would you invest so much money into implementing it, especially if it would only be temporary? Furthermore, there is no real way to bring that cost down.

Even with mass production, lidar would still be very expensive, so it is not a cost-effective measure to use it.

Cameras Replicate Human Vision

When thinking about self-driving cars, it is important to remember that their goal is. The goal of a self-driving car is to drive like a human. But humans are living beings that can see and process the world around them. Humans do not use lasers to understand the road before them. They use their eyes.

The idea, then, is that a camera is closer to replicating human vision than a laser is. A camera will mimic how humans see the world. Moreover, cameras can visually “see” the surroundings of the car and then send that information to the computer onboard the car, which will then analyze the information in a way similar to a human brain.

Tesla does not believe that the lasers used with lidar can do this. Rather, the lasers are limited. They read the landscape, but they do not see it in the way a camera does. Tesla believes that the only way forward is to mimic human behavior as closely as possible, and this means eschewing the use of lidar technology.

Lidar is Unreliable with Self-Driving Cars

Lidar is a technology that works well with stationary objects. For example, lidar sensors work well with stop signs and intersections. It works well with different turns you may face as you drive.

However, driving is filled with movable objects. You never know what will happen when you are driving. For example, there are other cars constantly moving in and out of your vision. Moreover, there could be people nearby walking, dogs running about, and the list could go on for quite some time.

Cameras do rather well with movable objects unlike the lasers of lidar. Lidar cannot distinguish one moving object from another, at least not reliably. Tesla believes that by using cameras, their vehicles will avoid the pitfalls caused by the limitations of the unreliability of the lasers in lidar technology.

Lidar Has Difficulty Adapting to New Surroundings

Similar to how it cannot distinguish moving objects from stationary objects, it is difficult for lidar to adapt to new surroundings, especially if the surroundings do not match up with the onboard map system.

Lidar relies on maps to know an area you are driving in. However, as most can attest to, maps are not always correct. Sometimes there are changes in roads and detours must be made. Sometimes you need to travel offroad.

However, there is more to its limited adaptability than just a change in the map system. For example, if there is a paper cup in the road, which normally you would drive right over, lidar would think it is a bump or something obstacle and would either slow the car or stop altogether. This can create accidents, especially if the cars behind you are not prepared for such an abrupt stop.

Cameras that are connected with A.I. would read that visual information far differently and accidents would be avoided. This is one reason why Tesla is against the use of lidar. Tesla wants to create a fully functional, fully self-driving car, and to do that it needs to be able to read all types of visual information and react the same way a human would.

What Can Tesla Autopilot Do?

Logically, the next question would be what can the Autopilot system do? Since it does not use lidar technology, you may wonder if there are limitations to the features the system provides the user. However, though there will be minor limitations as Tesla transitions to an all-camera system, the limitations end there.

As mentioned before, the Tesla Autopilot system does not make the vehicle fully self-driving. However, it does alleviate a lot of the workload of the driver. The driver, however, must still be fully aware of what is happening, and the driver must keep their hands on the wheel at all times.

Regardless, what can the Tesla Autopilot system do? Autopilot has two packages that can be implemented into your vehicle, though all new Teslas come with Autopilot preinstalled. The two packages are Autopilot by itself, and a package for full self-driving. Though, again, it is not self-driving in the true sense of the word.

Here is some of what Tesla Autopilot can do:

  • Cruise Control. The autopilot system is aware of the traffic conditions around the vehicle and will adjust the speed of the vehicle accordingly.
  • Autosteer. This function is to make lane changes. If the system detects you can make a lane change it will do this for you. This works in conjunction with the cruise control feature. Remember, you must have your hands on the wheel, though.
  • Autopark. The autopark feature comes with the Autopilot package for self-driving. This feature will park your car for you, which includes parallel parking, too.
  • Stoplight detection. While this is still in beta, the Tesla Autopilot system, in the self-driving package, can detect when there will be a stoplight and bring your car to a stop.
  • Navigation. The main component of the Autopilot system is that it can navigate the car. This is a function of the self-driving package. It will know when to make lane changes, when to take an exit, and more.

Tesla believes that soon these features will expand and that, eventually, its vehicles will be able to fully drive themselves. Therefore, the absence of lidar is not inhibiting the capabilities of Tesla’s self-driving cars.

The Safety Features of Autopilot

Some people may worry that since Tesla does not use lidar that its safety may be in question. However, the Autopilot system has many safety features that ensure the driver is not in any danger. Though, the driver must be aware at all times to ensure their own safety. Some of the safety features of the Autopilot system include:

  • Emergency Braking. In cases of emergency, the Autopilot system will automatically brake and stop your vehicle. 
  • Collision Warnings. If the system detects that there is a possible collision (from cars that are slow or immobile) it will slow down the car and, potentially, brake. 
  • Monitors Blindspots. The blind spots of the vehicle are monitored, and it will let you know when there is a car near when attempting to make a lane change.
  • Avoids drifting out of a lane. Often, a car can begin to drift out of its lane, but the Autopilot system will correct this and steer it back.

Tesla Autopilot does wholly prevent accidents from occurring, but it is equipped with many safety features to help, as best as possible, avoid accidents. However, this is why it is important for the driver to remain in control of the vehicle and to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road at all times.

Lidar Technology Explained

Now that you know how the Tesla Autopilot system works, and why Tesla refuses to use lidar technology, it is important to explore lidar technology and understand it and how it is used. After all, all other manufacturers of autonomous vehicles use this technology.

Lidar has been around for decades, and it has always been used in the planning and production of autonomous technology. Tesla, however, has been against this technology since the beginning, instead of relying on other methods as mentioned earlier.

But what exactly is lidar technology? The word “lidar” comes from the two main components that are used to make it work. Namely, “light” and “radar.” Lidar uses light (lasers) to read the information around it. For example, it will read how long the laser took to bounce back to the system to see what is there. Consider this:

  • Lasers. The lasers shoot out from the system and hit an object, whatever that may be, in the distance. The light is then bounced back to the original point. This information is analyzed by the system.
  • Radar. Lidar uses radar techniques to map out the surrounding area. When the data is analyzed, a radar-like map is created of the area to tell the vehicle how to respond.
  • Analysis. The readings are analyzed, but the lidar system can try and figure out what the objects are, and they can also try and detect how those objects will move.

This technology seems efficient, so many companies (all except Tesla) use it in their vehicles. The technology creates an image of the world around the vehicle, but it does use actual visual images as a camera provides.

How is Lidar Used?

Now that you know what lidar is, it is important to understand how it is used for self-driving cars. Radar is a common element of autonomous technology, and lidar is used similarly. However, it is different from those other technologies.

As the car is driving, the lidar sensor sends laser pulses out around the vehicle. Those pulses return to the car and create a sort of “image” of the surrounding area, which can then be analyzed into the car’s system to make the best driving decisions.

However, these “images” are not true photographic images. There is no detail in these images other than the outline of shapes and objects. This is why a paper cup will look the same as a small rock or another bump in the street. These images are 3D renderings, however.

There are three main components of lidar technology that are used to make it work. When lidar is installed into a vehicle, these components, along with some others, are put into practice. They are needed to get a full reading of the surrounding area as you drive. The three components are:

  • Scanner
  • Laser
  • GPS

These components are what let the unit read the surroundings. Of course, there are other components of the lidar system that allow it to analyze the data collected by the above-mentioned components.

How Has Lidar Changed?

Lidar has been around for a long time, and it has changed, too. Lidar, while still expensive, used to be much more expensive. Hundreds of thousands of dollars used to be needed to manufacture the system. It is easy to forget that lidar began with NASA to monitor satellites and other objects in outer space.

Nevertheless, the price of manufacturing lidar has come down drastically. However, as mentioned earlier, lidar is still rather expensive, especially when compared with the technology that Tesla is implementing into their autonomous cars.

Additionally, lidar units used to be very large and could not truly be practically used onboard a vehicle. However, as with the price, the size of the unit has gotten much smaller and can now be implemented without much worry.

The lidar system is small and is now standard on all self-driving cars, except for Tesla. However, Tesla did use similar technology, namely radar, that works similarly. Radar uses sound (sonar) to get a reading of the area whereas lidar uses light (lasers).

The Limitations of Lidar

Lidar, as already touched upon, does have its limitations. These limitations are part of the reason why Tesla will not use lidar in its vehicles. However, other companies have decided that, despite these limitations, the use of lidar is preferable and are moving forward with it in their manufacturing.

Of course, as with any technology, there will be improvements and progress every year. However, lidar is not foolproof. For example, lidar creates an image of the surrounding area, but this image does not have a lot of detail.

This being said, the detail in an image created by lidar is much better than the image created by radar, which Tesla has used in the past. However, it is still far from ideal. The image consists of shapes and 3D line renderings of the environment outside the car.

This is a good beginning, but there are blind spots that are created with this technology. The example of the paper cup illustrates this point. The computer cannot decipher one object from another, especially if they look similar. Since an autonomous car will always err on the side of caution, your car (when using lidar) could stop in the middle of the road for a crumpled-up t-shirt.

Tesla uses cameras because the camera will see the world in a similar way to a human, and this image has the most detail of any and can be read by the computer. Either way, there is no perfect system yet for a self-driving car, so, interestingly, Tesla has discarded the use of lidar technology since they began.

Why Tesla Tested Lidar

Elon Musk has been vocal about his distaste for lidar technology. He has made it known he believes it inferior and useless to invest in the long term. Recently a Tesla was seen fitted with lidar, and it has many folks curious as to why.

What is the future of Tesla and lidar? Will Tesla switch its long-held stance on lidar? Probably not. In fact, in 2021, as mentioned, they stopped using radar. So, why were they testing lidar on an official Tesla vehicle?

While no one can know for sure, there are a few theories. While many of these theories are plausible, it is important to remember that Tesla has announced no plans whatsoever to implement lidar into its Autopilot system.

  • Calibrating Tesla’s cameras. One theory is that Tesla is testing the lidar system to help calibrate its own cameras. It could use the lidar to map areas out and help with the functionality of its own cameras.
  • Implementing lidar into Tesla vehicles. While highly unlikely, it needs to be considered since a Tesla vehicle was seen testing lidar.
  • Testing and proving Tesla’s hypothesis. The most plausible explanation is that Tesla wants to prove its hypothesis that lidar is not worth the investment. They want to compare it to their own technology to show that they are making the right decision to move away from radar and to stay away from lidar.

Whatever the reason may be, a Tesla was seen testing a lidar system recently. However, it is unlikely to change the company’s stance on the technology that its competitors use.

Conclusion

Tesla prefers to move forward with a camera system connected with a computer because it feels that this is the best way to mimic how humans drive. While its competitors may use lidar, Tesla avoids it.

They have their reasons for avoiding lidar technology and for going all-in on cameras and computers. They believe that their choice is the right one when it comes to self-driving cars and time will tell if this is the case.

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Greg

Hi, I'm Greg. My daily driver is a Tesla Model 3 Performance. I've learned a ton about Teslas from hands-on experience and this is the site where I share everything I've learned.

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