Tesla announces a new step in its transition to pure vision, its commitment that the cameras should reach all the functions of a vehicle: after the radar in the spring of 2021, it is the turn of the ultrasonic sensors to say goodbye. As always with the manufacturer, the change will happen in a brutal way, since all Model 3 and Model Y produced since the beginning of October are devoid of ultrasonic sensors. The change affects the whole world, and the Model S and Model X will follow from 2023.
This new change is completely logical in the manufacturer’s approach, which relies on the cameras and the analysis of the video streams they record for all the functions of its vehicle. This not only affects the driving, even the automatic wipers and headlights are also controlled by the cameras instead of relying on dedicated sensors like in its competitors.
Tesla fires up his neurons for his long-term vision
The radar long located on the front of all cars designed by Tesla was used to identify objects and measure their distance. The manufacturer not only removed it from its new cars from 2021, but it has now also disabled it on the majority of the circulating fleet. My May 2021 Model 3 has a radar on the front, but it has been inactive for a few weeks and now Tesla Vision is in charge.
Ultrasonic sensors measure the distance between the front and rear bumpers and objects in the immediate vicinity. They are currently very useful in maneuvers, to know the exact distance between your car and other vehicles, or even walls and other posts. As I explained in the series about my experience with the car, these sensors are a valuable ally, especially since they are reactive and accurate.
As with the speed camera, removing them temporarily disables a few features, this time related to the Tesla’s self-parking capabilities, features reserved for enhanced Autopilot capabilities. The company promises they will return with future updates, but these aren’t features used by most drivers anyway. In theory, the heart of how ultrasound works, namely measuring and displaying the distance between the vehicle and nearby objects, should be kept the same. We will have to wait to see the first Teslas without ultrasonic sensors arrive to check if parity is there.
The cameras provide good coverage of the rear of the car, but it is perhaps more complicated at the front, at least in static. The three cameras placed high behind the windscreen are optimized to have an overview, but they have no view of the front bumper. A wall or a vehicle parked in front will be visible, not a low wall lower than the bumper. How does Tesla intend to overcome this defect? A significant change is still possible, although we imagine the press release would have mentioned it. By adding a faceplate camera, Tesla could better handle this transition and even offer a 360° view, like many of its competitors.
While we wait to be able to judge with the first feedback from users, we know that for years the company has been actively working on 3D reconstruction of the environment using only the cameras. Radars and other LiDAR excel at this task, but Tesla aims to do it with less hardware and, above all, by taking into account the context that the images provide that the dedicated sensors cannot offer. The goal is not only to place obstacles, but also to identify them.
True to form, the Tesla moves quickly and offers no choice. If you wanted a car with ultrasonic sensors, you had to be faster and have already received one, or be part of the batch being delivered. All new models will no longer have ultrasonic sensors, and one has to hope that the corresponding vision-based function will be at least as reliable and accurate. Who knows, we might have a good surprise and it might be better in terms of range or responsiveness.