• 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
    • Image Credit: Tesla

    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.

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