Tesla Model 3
  • Image Credit: Tesla

Tesla Adds Level 5 Autonomous Driving Hardware

Tesla announced last night that it's taking a stab at Level 5 autonomous driving, the holy grail of driverless technology, with a slew of new hardware it will install as standard on all new Model 3 and Model S sedans and Model X crossovers.

While Tesla's announcement marks a significant step forward in the quest for a truly driverless car, it's important to understand what Level 5 autonomy means, what kind of new technology is in place on the automaker's upcoming models, and what it's going to cost drivers in the short term.
Tesla Motors Autopilot
  • Image Credit: Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Level 3 vs. Level 5 Autonomy

Why is Level 5 such a big deal? Well, it's quite simple. The original Autopilot system employed by thousands of Tesla owners is what the Society of Automotive Engineers calls Level 3 or “conditional automation.” In these vehicles, the SAE explains, the car handles acceleration, brakes, and steering while monitoring the outside environment in certain driving modes. But a human still needs to sit behind the wheel for any “dynamic driving task,” like steering, braking, accelerating, watching the road, changing lanes, using turn signals, and responding to events.
A full Level 5 vehicle doesn't require a human. Period. The car's systems are capable of handling any situation on the road without a driver's input. That means you could theoretically take a nap or read a book. Like we said, Level 5 autonomy is the holy grail.
Tesla 360-degree camera
  • Image Credit: Tesla

Eight cameras: 360 degrees at 820 feet.

New Model 3s, Ss, and Xs will each rely on eight cameras to provide a 360-degree view at distances up to 820 feet. Based on images released by Tesla, the little lenses are everywhere, from conventional locations like at the top of the windshield to more unlikely ones like the B-pillar and facing backwards from the fender badges.
Tesla ultrasonic sensors
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Ultra-sonic sensors see with sound.

While Tesla's Autopilot relied on ultra-sonic sensors to detect obstacles at closer ranges, the EV maker updated the sensors for Level 5 ability. Tesla scattered the 12 sensors about the front and rear of the car allowing, say, a Model 3 to detect “both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system.”

A front-facing radar system provides a third level of protection, using a “redundant wavelength, capable of seeing through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead.”

Tesla neural net self-driving computer
  • Image Credit: Tesla

A neural net to sort the data out.

Tesla installed a new, more powerful computer to make sense of all three sources of information. Supposedly 40 times more powerful than the old Autopilot computer, the new computer is reportedly supplied by Nvidia and uses what Tesla calls a “neural net” to see “in every direction simultaneously and on wavelengths that go far beyond the human senses.”
Tesla autonomous dashboard
  • Image Credit: Tesla

And now the bad news...

While Tesla is installing all this tech on its new vehicles, those same vehicles are coming to market sans Autopilot and other, more common safety features like automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning. Convenience features like adaptive cruise control are sacrificed, too.

Tesla says the systems will stay disabled on the new models until it can “further calibrate the system using millions of miles of real-world driving.” While Tesla says all it takes is an over-the-air update to re-enable these popular features, the fact that you can get a Honda Civic with adaptive cruise and automatic braking but not a Model S or Model X that costs three to four times as much is frustrating.

In the future, cars will drive us. And probably not surprisingly, they'll often know where to go without us even needing to tell them.

That's the theme of a short back-and-forth conversation on Twitter recently between Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk and a user who tagged him in a comment suggesting that "it would be cool" to be able to tell a car where to go. Responding to user James Harvey, Musk replied, "It won't even need to ask you most of the time." Later, after Harvey asked how the car would know where he wants to go, another user suggested that the car would know what time you go to work. "Yeah, don't exactly need to be Sherlock Holmes," Musk tweeted.

That the ability to know where we're going will be part of our future driving experience shouldn't be surprising. After all, the smartphones we carry around already possess the ability to predict what we want — think Google's cleverness in tailoring search results or providing traffic information just before your commute, Facebook's highly customized News Feed content or even auto-fill technology, which can predict the words you're typing. And plenty of automakers have been touting their own work in developing in-car artificial intelligence systems. Like Audi's Elaine concept, which will be able to learn, think and even empathize with drivers. Or Mitsubishi's e-Evolution concept, which can not only assist your driving, but also assess your skills and teach you how to improve them.

Tesla's vehicles, of course, are being outfitted with all the latest autonomous driver-assist technology, with the automaker eager to one day reach full Level 5 self-driving capability. According to Inc., Teslas will be able to listen and respond to directional commands, and they'll even have access to your calendar to comb for information about where you need to go. Tesla has also said it's developing an update to its Autopilot hardware and remains on track to achieve full Level 5 autonomous driving by the end of this year, which strikes a lot of people as wildly unrealistic.

At any rate, the promise of cars knowing what time we're sneaking out to get donuts or picking up the kids is interesting, coming from the man who has warned that AI presents "a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization."

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