Tesla CEO Elon Musk held a press conference a couple of days ago to explain the Autopilot features included in the company’s 7.0 software update, but LIDAR, one of the remote sensing technologies that Google uses in its self-driving car, also came up briefly. Elon Musk had some bold comments about to use of LIDAR in autonomous vehicles, in response to one inquiry from a WSJ reporter, which questioned whether the Model S would need more sensors for greater levels autonomy…
The Google prototype’s self-driving abilities are powered mainly by a LIDAR array on top of the vehicle, which — in simple terms — measures distance by pointing lasers at targets surrounding the car and analyzing the light that’s reflected. When questioned on whether future Tesla cars would need more sensors, potentially including LIDAR, Musk suggests that this technology “doesn’t make sense” and is “unnecessary” in the context of an autonomous car.
He doesn’t outright say that Google’s implementation is bad, but rather suggests that LIDAR isn’t something that a future Tesla would need. “I don’t think you need LIDAR. I think you can do this all with passive optical and then with maybe one forward RADAR,” he said. “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.” Harsh words for someone that has sleepovers with Larry Page on occasion.
Here’s Musk’s full response, when asked if it would be possible to move toward greater levels of autonomy in the Tesla Model S without adding hardware:
There’s more that can be done, but the sensor suite is not the full autonomy suite. For full autonomy you’d obviously need 360 cameras, you’d probably need redundant forward cameras, you’d need redundant computer hardware, and like redundant motors and steering rack. For full autonomy you’d really want to have a more comprehensive sensor suite and computer systems that are fail proof.
That said, I don’t think you need LIDAR. I think you can do this all with passive optical and then with maybe one forward RADAR… if you are driving fast into rain or snow or dust. 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.
We do use LIDAR for our dragon spacecraft when docking with the space station. And I think it makes sense [in that case] and we’ve put a lot of effort into developing that. So it’s not that I don’t like LIDAR in general, I just don’t think it makes sense in a car context. I think it’s unnecessary.
So clearly, while he doesn’t think LIDAR is the answer, a future Tesla is going to need more than just a software upgrade to get full autonomy. A future Tesla car would need 360 degree cameras, according to Musk, as well as redundant forward cameras, redundant computer systems, and a redundant motor to act as a failsafe. As Musk has noted many times in the past, full autonomy will require the approval of many regulatory bodies, and the technology is just about three years away.