New York, Munich It doesn’t work without radar. The automotive world is largely in agreement: radar sensors are necessary for safe, automated and autonomous driving. Only one person didn’t want to believe that: Tesla founder Elon Musk. The CEO of the electric car pioneer has so far relied entirely on cameras.
According to experts, a spectacular turnaround is now in the offing. Experts expect that Musk will soon start installing a high-resolution radar system he developed himself in his cars. This is indicated by documents that Tesla has submitted to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which monitors all radio wave-emitting devices in America, including radar devices.
The swing is a sensitive issue for the most valuable car company in the world. Back in 2016, Musk promised buyers he would develop a viable autopilot that will “allow your car to make money for you when you’re not using it.” A private robotaxi, then. But to this day he has not succeeded.
Tesla follows the competitors
Now Tesla is taking a path that other manufacturers have long been taking with less full-bodied announcements. “All leading manufacturers use radar – only Tesla doesn’t currently,” says Klaus Schmitz, semiconductor specialist at the management consultancy Arthur D. Little. But that is likely to change soon. The US group is in the process of bringing the so-called Hardware 4 generation into its vehicles.
The radar system developed by Tesla itself is a modern, so-called 4D system. In addition to distance, speed and direction of movement, such solutions also recognize the height of objects. “In addition, such sensors also offer a significantly improved resolution,” says Peter Fintl, chip expert at the consulting firm Capgemini.
Guidehouse analyst Sam Abuelsamid, who has been watching Tesla for many years, analyzed the filings filed with the FCC. “The new solution is significantly more powerful than previous systems,” he tells Handelsblatt. There are more radar antennas, which allows a significantly higher resolution using special software.
Among other things, this could solve Tesla’s problem with so-called phantom braking due to incorrectly interpreted camera data. For example, the old system sometimes interprets photos of people on truck tarpaulins as real pedestrians. “That doesn’t happen with a radar,” says Abuelsamid. “Tesla is catching up with other manufacturers.”
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Tesla initially did not respond to a Handelsblatt inquiry about the new sensor.
The camera recordings that Tesla has been using so far are evaluated and interpreted by artificial intelligence (AI) – analogous to a human driver who can only rely on his eyes. Musk has so far refused to install additional systems: “In my opinion, that’s a crutch,” he had said in the past.
Tesla in court over fatal accidents
Tesla’s previous autopilot most closely corresponds to a so-called Level 2 system, i.e. a solution that only supports the driver (Level 5 corresponds to fully autonomous driving). Which doesn’t stop Tesla from marketing the autopilot as a “Full Self-Driving Beta” (FSD Beta).
This is a problem for supervisors: In August 2021, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched an investigation into the autopilot in 765,000 Tesla vehicles after around a dozen accidents. This spring, the company faces its first jury trial in fatal accidents blamed on autopilot.
Experts consider the installation of radar sensors essential for autopilot applications. “In the industry, it is undisputed that due to the technical limitations of purely camera-based systems, it makes sense to add other senses – i.e. sensors,” emphasizes consultant Fintl. Especially at higher speeds, such as on the freeway, “radars are practically indispensable due to their long range”.
Tesla has taken a zigzag course in autonomous driving: When it introduced Autopilot in 2015, it used hardware from supplier Mobileye, which included cameras, radar and ultrasonic sensors. After a fatal accident in 2016, the Israeli company withdrew from the partnership on the grounds that Tesla had abused the system.
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With Autopilot version 2 from October 2016, Tesla introduced its own system that included eight cameras, a long-range radar and twelve low-resolution ultrasonic sensors, which are mainly used when parking. The company removed the radar sensor in early 2021, followed by the ultrasonic devices in 2022. To this day, some parking functions no longer work.
Tesla was able to save money through various technologies
“Tesla officially justified the removal of the radar with the fact that it doesn’t really help. However, it can be assumed that the lack of chips played a significant role,” says analyst Abuelsamid. The deletion saved Tesla around $40 per vehicle – a lot of money in the tightly calculating auto industry. The resolution of the radar was also only low. By getting rid of the ultrasound devices, Tesla saved another roughly $100 per vehicle, according to the analyst’s calculation.
However, existing customers who have paid up to $15,000 for the FSD beta package are unlikely to benefit from the new technology. Retrofitting the radar sensor and the necessary on-board computer makes “neither technical nor financial sense” for Tesla, says Abuelsamid.
For many owners, this should be annoying given the full-bodied announcements. “The vehicles sold to date will not perform nearly as well on autopilot as those with the new hardware. But Musk has told all buyers since 2016 that they have all the necessary hardware for Level 5 autonomous driving,” the analyst said. Now Musk cannot deliver what he promised. “Tesla has maneuvered itself into a real dead end.”
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