A Tesla Model S test vehicle with a new suite of sensors has been spotted in the San Francisco Bay Area last night, as reported by a Redditor on the Tesla forum.

The vehicle appears to be equipped with LiDAR sensors on the side mirrors, a new front-facing camera, and additional sensors around the car. Although it’s definitely a Tesla Model S, it doesn’t necessarily means the car is owned by Tesla or that the automaker is testing this particular hardware suite.

TL;DR/Takeaway: A Tesla Model S with a new suite of sensors has been spotted in California. The suite includes LiDAR tech and additional cameras. It’s likely a fully autonomous test vehicle, but it’s not necessarily owned by Tesla./

Other companies working on autonomous driving technology, like Bosch, have used Model S’s in the past to test their hardware. Bosch, who’s also a supplier for Tesla’s Autopilot, has a research center with an autonomous driving division in the Bay Area. Electric carmaker Faraday Future recently hired the head of Bosch self-driving lab.

Of course, it can also simply be a prototype for Tesla’s next generation Autopilot, which Tesla needs to achieve fully autonomous driving. All of Tesla’s vehicles manufactured since September 2014 are equipped with the company’s first generation Autopilot hardware, which consists of a forward-looking camera, radar, and 360 degree ultrasonic sensors.

Tesla has been regularly pushing software updates with additional safety and convenience features for semi-automated highway driving and assisted driving utilizing this hardware suite under its Autopilot program, but the system has its limits and the company needs a new hardware suite to eventually allow full autonomous driving. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said that he believes the company’s fully autonomous technology will be ready in about 2 years – though the hardware should be ready long before that and the software will follow.

Redditor stevep98 shared a few more pictures via Reddit:

What is particularly interesting if this prototype is being tested by Tesla, and again we don’t know that, is the use of LiDAR sensors. In the past, Elon Musk said that you don’t need LiDAR to make a self-driving car, indicating that Tesla will likely not be using the tech. Musk while talking about the necessary hardware to make a fully autonomous car:

There’s more that can be done, but the sensor suite is not the full autonomy suite. For full autonomy you’d obviously need 360 cameras, you’d probably need redundant forward cameras, you’d need redundant computer hardware, and like redundant motors and steering rack. For full autonomy you’d really want to have a more comprehensive sensor suite and computer systems that are fail proof.

That said, I don’t think you need LIDAR. I think you can do this all with passive optical and then with maybe one forward RADAR… if you are driving fast into rain or snow or dust. I think that completely solves it without the use of LIDAR. I’m not a big fan of LIDAR, I don’t think it makes sense in this context.

We do use LIDAR for our dragon spacecraft when docking with the space station. And I think it makes sense [in that case] and we’ve put a lot of effort into developing that. So it’s not that I don’t like LIDAR in general, I just don’t think it makes sense in a car context. I think it’s unnecessary.

“I just don’t think it makes sense in a car context” makes it sound unlikely that Tesla will use the technology.

But in the case of this prototype, the sensors in the side rear-view mirrors look just like a LiDAR puck. They also seem to be very well-integrated in the mirror casing, meaning that a custom mold for new mirror casings was likely developed just for this application.

Either way, whether it’s a Tesla-owned vehicle or not, it’s fun to see that autonomous technology is being tested on all-electric vehicles.

Photo credit: stevep98 on Reddit

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