The Autopilot system that Tesla has built into its electric cars already gives a tantalizing glimpse into the future of motoring, offering near complete autonomous driving capability. The company has now announced that it plans to add a new set of upgrades to the software, which will be sent over-the-air to car owners in the next two weeks. Speaking at a press conference Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, said that the new update was a massive enhancement, and that he wished that it could have been offered earlier.
How the System Works
The most important improvement that Tesla has made to Version 8.0 of the Autopilot software is building in a higher reliance on radar for the carmaker’s Model X and Model S vehicles. Tesla cars, produced since October 2014, all have the radar sensors, allowing the upgraded software to run on the existing hardware, though Musk was the first to admit that getting it to fit was one of their toughest tasks.
The software enables a car to build a picture of its environment by combining the radar installed in the front bumper, a forward-looking camera placed near the rear view mirror as well as 12 ultrasonic sensors located all around the vehicle. Until the release of the new update, the image from the camera has been used by the car’s computer as the primary source of information.
With the new version of the software, the burden of sensing objects in the environment is shifted to the radar, which is able to unlock up to six times more information as each pulse is reflected. Ten times each second, the radar pings outward and, as the car moves, the reflections are assembled into a 3D image.
Although other car makers consider radar as a blunt tool with regard to imaging, Tesla claims to have improved its signal processing and have made it work. Repetition is also helpful too, because it will increase confidence that the car has sensed an actual obstacle. Obviously, missing an actual object would be a problem – the car could hit it. However, a false positive is just as bad. A self-driving car is useless if it keeps slamming on the brakes for no reason.
What’s more, the cars will not learn about their environment in isolation, but the system has been developed to allow the entire fleet of Tesla vehicles to learn at once. Musk says, “Every day, we are adding 1.5 million miles to the Autopilot.” Even when the software isn’t scanning, it is still gathering data. This is because the radar system could be set off by something as innocent as a sign over the road, and may mistake it for something in the car’s path. Although the image will still get geotagged anyway, if the driver, along with several other Tesla drivers fail to brake at the same place, all Teslas everywhere learn that it is nothing to worry about.
Why the Update Is Necessary
Musk insists that had the improvements been released earlier, they would likely have prevented a fatal crash that happened in Florida in May, where a Tesla Model S with its Autopilot active crashed into a tractor trailer that was crossing its path. The car’s camera failed to recognize the white truck due to the bright sky, but radar would have; this is because it senses anything dense and, in particular, made of metal.
Radar is also very effective at identifying objects in situations of low visibility like fog. It can identify the tangled metal of a multi-car accident ahead, well before the driver or the camera.
Recent criticism of Tesla has also resulted in the introduction of new features. If a driver ignores alerts warning them to keep their hands on the wheel three times in the space of an hour, they will be forced to pull over and park to re-engage Autopilot. Data from Tesla shows that there are some drivers who ignore as many as 10 warning beeps every hour, a situation that the company would like to avoid.
The development of Tesla’s Autopilot is widely regarded as an important step towards achieving complete autonomous driving, although the company continuously warns drivers that, for now, drivers should be ready to take control.
Despite the company’s warnings, there are several experts who continue to insist that this kind of technology will make drivers over-reliant on the vehicle’s self-driving capabilities. For example, a review of the software in Consumer Reports says that Tesla is building in “too much autonomy too soon.”
Musk says that the update has been examined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and so far, they seem to be happy with it. Tesla hopes that the technology will help it maintain its lead in the development of autonomous driving technology.
“I think the software updates will make the Model S and Model X undoubtedly the safest cars on the road today,” adds Musk.