Tesla has stopped building forward-facing radar sensors into its Model 3 sedans and Model Y SUVs in North America, after CEO Elon Musk publicly expressed a desire to rely on cameras to power the company’s advanced driver assistance system, Autopilot.
Tesla has been developing the vision-based version of Autopilot during the limited beta test of its “Full Self-Driving” software. But it’s not completely done making sure Autopilot works without the radar sensor, though, as it is limiting or disabling some features on these vehicles for an indefinite amount of time. Autosteer — the Autopilot feature that can keep a Tesla centered in a lane, even around curves — will only be usable at 75 miles per hour and below. Tesla is also only making it available at an (unspecified) longer minimum following distance to any cars in front.
The company says Smart Summon — which lets a driver “summon” their Tesla from outside the car, even in a crowded parking lot — “may be disabled at delivery,” along with the Emergency Lane Departure Avoidance feature. Tesla says it will start restoring these features “[i]n the weeks ahead” in a sequence of over-the-air software updates.
Tesla is not currently removing the radar sensor from its more expensive models, the Model S sedan or Model X SUV. The company says it is initially focusing on making the Model 3 and Model Y reliant on the exclusively vision-based system because it sells far more of them. “Transitioning them to Tesla Vision first allows us to analyze a large volume of real-world data in a short amount of time, which ultimately speeds up the roll-out of features based on Tesla Vision,” the company writes.
Tesla didn’t offer any more information about when it would stop building radar sensors in the Model S and Model X, or the vehicles it’s building in China. The company actually stopped making the Model S and Model X in the first quarter of 2021 as it readied a new version of each vehicle. Those redesigned versions have been delayed, though a launch event for the new Model S is scheduled for next week.
Radar sensors are common in many modern passenger cars, trucks, and SUVs. They’re used to help detect fast-approaching objects, even in poor visibility, and are one of the sensors that power safety features like automatic emergency braking. While modern cars also pull data from other sensors — including cameras — to power these features, automakers like to have multiple types to make sure that there’s redundancy. If one type of sensor fails or can’t perform in a certain situation, there’s always a backup.
Musk has, somewhat famously, spent years saying he didn’t think laser-based lidar sensors were necessary to develop semi- and fully autonomous vehicles. But he recently started talking a lot more about switching Tesla to a vision-based system that mainly relied on the eight cameras embedded in each car (and 12 ultrasonic sensors) as well as a neural network processing of the real-time feeds they generate. In April, the company wrote in a press release that “a vision-only system is ultimately all that is needed for full autonomy.”
“Our AI-based software architecture has been increasingly reliant on cameras, to the point where radar is becoming unnecessary earlier than expected,” Tesla wrote. The company said at the time that it was “nearly ready to switch the US market to Tesla Vision.”