Elon Musk’s blind spot with self-driving cars
As debates go, this one is pretty nerdy and not likely to gain you friends down at the pub.
If you walk into the middle of a conversation debating the merits of Messi vs Ronaldo, or Lewis Hamilton vs Michael Schumacher, you probably aren’t going to start up a conversation about whether self driving cars require LiDAR or whether emerging AI and camera technologies can replace it.
Well, maybe you might have that debate at MIT, or Oxford, or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or something, but not in your normal, everyday life.
However, if you are interested in self-driving technology – and a lot of people are right now – this is a conversation that is dominating. And, as with many conversations in the world, it’s being driven by Elon Musk.
Musk, you see, is convinced that you do not need LiDAR to engineer self-driving vehicles and Tesla is operating within that mandate. Other car manufacturers looking at self-driving are including LiDAR in their designs.
If you don’t know what LiDAR is, here’s a quick summary: It’s a form of radar that is primarily used to determine special positioning. It does that by targeting objects with a laser and measuring how long it takes for the reflected light to return to the receiver.
It can “see” an environment and, when combined with computer AI can steer self-driven vehicles.
However, Musk is not a fan. In 2019, he was famously quoted as saying “Lidar is a fool’s errand,” and that “anyone relying on lidar is doomed. Doomed!”
His main issue is that they would make the technology prohibitively expensive and prone to breakdown.
So, imagine people’s surprise today when a photo emerged of a Tesla being tested in South Florida with LiDAR. With no public statement by Musk or Tesla, it was unclear what it all meant.
What isn’t unclear now is that the LiDAR technology that was spotted on the Tesla is from a company called Luminar Technology. Reporting by Bloomberg confirmed that the car seen this week was a Tesla and that it was Luminar LiDAR tech mounted on the vehicle.
As you might imagine, Luminar stock (NASDAQ: LAZR) saw a bump when the Bloomberg report was first published, however, the rally wasn’t sustained and it lost most of the morning gains it had on Monday to close at $21.20 USD, which is towards the low end of its 52-week high of $47.80.
For it’s part Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) had quite the day. As part of an overall rally, it ended up 4.4% on the day, closing at $606.44. However, that was down from a mid-day high of $613.33.
Both stocks trended down in the afternoon.
That’s likely because the photo by itself doesn’t really prove much other than there is some working relationship between Tesla and Luminar. It seems farfetched that Musk and Tesla have fully reversed course in less than two years and are now embracing LiDAR tech for its fleet of cars.
No, what’s more likely is that what was photographed was a control test. Tesla wasn’t testing the car to see how to incorporate LiDAR into their design, but rather to get data to compare with their non-LiDAR designs.
Musk isn’t one to be shy with his opinions, so until we have heard from him directly that he’s changed direction on LiDAR tech, I think it’s probably safe to say that the simplest explanation – that this was a control test – is the truth here.
Aside: It’s Messi over Ronaldo and Hamilton over Schumacher.