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Tesla declares victory on self-driving car hardware, announces full autonomous capability

Tesla is known for bold claims, but now it has made one of its most aggressive — from here on, all Teslas shipped have the hardware needed to eventually become fully autonomous. Tesla believes that its new combination of eight cameras and a radar, along with some ultrasonic sensors and a Titan-class GPU, will be all it needs to get to Level 5 autonomy (the gold standard, meaning absolute full autonomy in all situations — not even requiring human controls). This puts it at odds with nearly every other autonomous car project, since most of them are betting heavily on high-cost lidar units — and waiting for lower-cost versions before they have production solutions — or still churning through prototype vision systems.

Tesla’s new hardware configuration comes on the heels of its dumping Mobileye’s camera system as the primary sensor for its Autopilot. Tesla is replacing it with radar and its own proprietary signal processing software. Radar is better able to “see” through adverse weather conditions than cameras, and can even be bounced off the roadbed to determine what is ahead of the car in front. Tesla says its radar can look out up to 160 meters. Tesla Autopilot

In the meantime, the company also upgraded the camera systems, with a total of eight providing 360-degree coverage. The narrow-focus forward camera can see out to 250 meters, while the other cameras have wider fields of view and ranges from 60 to 150 meters. The cars’ 12 ultrasonic sensors also have double the range of previous versions, out to 8 meters. The system’s new Nvidia GPU is 40 times more powerful than before, to accommodate the neural net processing needed.

In addition to the now common feature of lane keeping and lane changing, the system will eventually be able to look for faster lanes as you drive, and move you over to an exit as needed. Initially, at that point the car will give control back to you. But to fulfill Tesla’s promise of full Level 5 capability, eventually it will need to be able to get you door to door. In line with this vision, Tesla’s Musk says that at some point you’ll be able to summon your Tesla even if it’s on the opposite coast, using Superchargers that have automatic charge connection enabled.

The fine print in Tesla’s announcement reveals that cars with the new hardware will actually have less features for now (and that’s expected to start changing in December). Even safety features such as AEB (Automated Emergency Braking) will not be available until Tesla finishes developing and testing a version of its Autopilot software for the new hardware configuration. As usual, updates will be rolled out over the air. Once full self-driving capability is rolled out, the price tag will be $12,000, or $7,500 for Enhanced Autopilot, compared with $3,000 for the current Autopilot capability.

Here’s Tesla’s description of what its full self-driving capability will deliver:

All you will need to do is get in and tell your car where to go. If you don’t say anything, the car will look at your calendar and take you there as the assumed destination or just home if nothing is on the calendar. Your Tesla will figure out the optimal route, navigate urban streets (even without lane markings), manage complex intersections with traffic lights, stop signs and roundabouts, and handle densely packed freeways with cars moving at high speed. When you arrive at your destination, simply step out at the entrance and your car will enter park seek mode, automatically search for a spot and park itself. A tap on your phone summons it back to you.

In addition to spurring demand for Tesla’s cars — as a foothold on the future — this is likely also a strategy to help make the company profitable. At $12K, the self-driving feature will likely be one of the highest-margin portions of the car, once the R&D costs are covered. Overall, this move by Tesla will either prove it’s yet again an amazing, groundbreaking company, or it will give it a big black eye if it can’t deliver the software it has committed itself to.

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