The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Tesla's Model S Will Offer 360-degree Sonar

Sure, it'll also have an extra motor, 4-wheel drive and semiautonomous capability. But sonar's a little--unusual

2 min read
Tesla's Model S Will Offer 360-degree Sonar
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Elon Musk's much-anticipated announcement last night turned out to be less about self-driving capability and more about good, old-fashioned oomph. The Tesla Model S will offer four-wheel drive with a second motor for the extra axle. Musk said that this gets the car from zero to 60 miles per hour (that is, to 97 kilometers per hour) in 3.2 seconds. That’s supercar territory.

It’s also Thinking Cars territory, because the all-electronic drive juggles torque between the front and back wheels from one millisecond to the next, improving both the car’s grip on the road and its energy efficiency. The updated model will go 443 km (275 miles) on a charge, up 3.7 percent from the standard model.

On the other hand, the car’s self-driving capability—the feature the auto press expected to be the main news—turns out to be just an echo of what Mercedes-Benz already offers in its S Class. Like the Mercedes flagship, the Tesla will have forward-looking radar, cameras that recognize stop signs, and systems that use sensor data to keep the car in its lane and to avoid headlong crashes.

After a prolonged tease from a showman like Musk, we expect more. Tesla has merely become the next in a line of automakers that say they, too, will eventually catch up with Mercedes. Volvo plans a similar degree of autonomy in two years, Nissan and Audi in roughly four.

But Musk did give us two interesting nuggets.

First, every Tesla car will come with self-driving equipment—something no other manufacturer does. To be fair, it’s fairly easy for a niche player like Tesla. The old General Motors may have had a car for “every purse and purpose,” but Tesla will settle for every prince and potentate. At least for now.

Second, the cars will pack sonar, a.k.a. ultrasound range finding. This one is unusual because Musk appears to be talking about something beyond the cheap, compact devices other auto makers now salt around their cars. Those sensors mostly function as aides to close-in work, like self-parking, and as backups to the front- and rear-looking radars. The Mercedes S Class, for instance, has 12 of them, with ranges under 5 meters.

But Musk says that his ultrasound system is “long-range” and offers 360 degree” coverage. He adds that it establishes a protective cocoon around the car. It can see anything: a small child, a dog. And it can operate at any speed.” 

Every self-driving car needs many senses. Musk ticks off four: radar, cameras, sonar and GPS. Eventually there will be a fifth: information channeled from other cars and from the road itself.

The Conversation (0)

We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

Keep Reading ↓Show less