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Tesla makes Autopilot safer, smarter with major update

Tesla's Autopilot has been under tight scrutiny since its first fatal crash this year, but the system is getting a major update that Elon Musk says could drop the accident rate by half.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
3 min read
Tesla Autopilot Display
Watch this: Tesla Autopilot update wants your hands on the wheel

Tesla's Version 8 software update is coming, and along with it some major enhancements to the company's Autopilot functionality.

Autopilot, available on all Model S and Model X cars manufactured since October 2014, is a term that aggregates a suite of features cumulatively enabling the cars to self-steer and adjust their speed on many driving circumstances, relying on a combination of imaging, sonar and radar sensors. Now, with Version 8, the cars will make even greater reliance on the radar sensor built into the car's bumper.

Most semi-autonomous driving systems use this breadth of sensor types to handle various situations and, most importantly, often rely on the data coming from one sensor to validate what another sensor is detecting. With this update, Tesla claims that its Autopilot system will be able to resolve enough detail from the car's radar alone to not rely on any other sensor. The car will, however, rely on the data gathered by other Teslas on the road to help identify things like street signs that, with their reflective nature, can actually be difficult for radar systems to accurately resolve.

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"We weren't confident that we could resolve false positives with the radar," CEO Elon Musk said in a call earlier today. "But, with a lot of analysis, and getting some upgraded drivers from our supplier for the radar to expose the raw functionality, we now believe that we can combine that with fleet learning and almost entirely eliminate the false positives, the false braking events, and enable the car to initiate braking -- so long as it's not large and fluffy."

I asked whether that included things like moose and horses, both large and occasionally fluffy things, to which Musk replied: "It should work for something like a moose, because a moose is quite a big mass, but it may not work for something like a small deer."

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Tesla's Autopilot system has been under close scrutiny since a fatal crash of a Model S running Autopilot was made public on June 30. In that crash, a tractor-trailer turned in front of a Model S, and neither the driver nor the Autopilot system applied the brakes. Since then, Mobileye, the company that provided the semi-autonomous functionality for the Model S, announced that it would no longer provide its technology to Tesla. While Musk declined to comment on that detail, shifting away from optical recognition and toward radar detection could be seen as Tesla distancing itself from Mobileye technology.

In addition to the new reliance on radar detection, Version 8 includes many safety-oriented enhancements, including more-visible warnings on the dashboard and sharper application of brakes in an emergency. However, perhaps the most important enhancement is a complete deactivation of the Autosteer system if the driver has been unresponsive to warnings. Musk said that if the driver ignores three warnings over the course of one hour, the system will completely deactivate itself until the car is parked and turned on and off.

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However, not all the enhancements are purely safety-minded. There are some usability enhancements, including the ability for the car to take exits from the highway while Autosteer is still activated and, in 8.1, if you have navigation enabled, the car will automatically take the appropriate exit.

Musk also took this opportunity to clarify the label "beta," stating: "It's not really beta, it's just that if something is described really clearly with 'beta' you're less likely to be complacent." Musk also indicated that the Autopilot suite will be subjected to an "even greater level of testing" than it has seen thus far.

Musk is optimistic that these updates, which will be available within weeks, will cut the accident rate on the Model S and Model X cars by more than half. Musk also believes that these updates would "very likely" have prevented the accident that resulted in the death of Josh Brown earlier this year. That, of course, we'll never know, but Version 8 should indeed make driving a modern Tesla even safer. Perhaps more importantly, it should prevent some of the more egregious misuses of the system.