Over the weekend, electric-car maker Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA) announced a major upgrade to its Autopilot technology, a driver-assist system with features like automatic steering, lane changing, and braking. While it included a wide range of new features, the most noteworthy improvement is undoubtedly Tesla's shift to a greater reliance on its vehicles' radar sensors for signal processing.
Notably, Autopilot's growing dependence on radar continues to separate Tesla from other automakers' and tech names' (namely Alphabet ) increasing confidence in LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology as an integral player in the future of autonomous driving. Last month, for instance, Ford (NYSE: F) invested $75 million in sensor company Velodyne LiDAR, the maker of compact, advanced LiDAR products capable of delivering accurate 3D data in real time. Ford anticipates using LiDAR as a key part of its future autonomous vehicle systems in production vehicles.
"From the very beginning of our autonomous vehicle program, we saw LiDAR as a key enabler due to its sensing capabilities and how it complements radar and cameras," said Ford product lead and CTO Raj Nair when the company announced its investment in Velodyne in August.
But during Tesla's question-and-answer session with press, Musk continued to doubt LiDAR's usefulness in autonomous driving.
"We do not anticipate using LiDAR," Musk said. He went on to explain how the technology can't see through rain, snow, dust, and fog the way radar does. "... So the obvious thing is to use radar and not use LiDAR," Musk said.
It's about safety
Tesla spent a good portion of its conference call with press focusing on the importance of Autopilot's role in increasing driving safety.
The update marks a "dramatic improvement in the safety of the vehicle," Musk said. Going further, he asserted that the improvements will make Tesla vehicles "by far" the safest on the road.
Model S. Image source: The Motley Fool.
The safety of Tesla's Autopilot came into the spotlight in June when Tesla announced the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's preliminary evaluation of a fatal crash that occurred in a Tesla vehicle while Autopilot was engaged.
This new use of radar as a primary control sensor would have likely prevented the fatal crash earlier this year, Musk said.
This Autopilot update also addresses another important safety concern: the complacency that experienced Autopilot users can develop when the technology is activated. In a roundabout way of penalizing drivers who don't use Autopilot correctly, Tesla said Autopilot will "not allow reengagement of Autosteer until parked if user ignores repeated warnings [to grab the wheel]."
Tesla plans to make Autopilot version 8.0 available to customers via an over-the-air software update in about two weeks.
This is a particularly important update, as it could help simultaneously mitigate negative connotations with Autopilot following the recent high-profile fatal crash and boost Autopilot's value proposition as a selling point for the vehicles. This, of course, assumes Autopilot 8.0 enhances the driver-assist experience in Tesla vehicles as much as the company expects it will.
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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel Sparks owns shares of Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares), Ford, and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days . We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .