Tesla is preparing a significant upgrade to its autopilot technology for a future software update, the company announced today. The biggest change is in how the company uses its radar sensors. Previously, a camera and image processing system were the the primary sensors, backed up by data from the radar system to verify its findings — but going forward, the camera and radar will work side-by-side to detect obstacles.
A “geocoded whitelist” of objects like road signs and bridges will help prevent false positives (and thus automatic braking for no reason, which can be alarming and dangerous), and allow the system to notice the potential for crashes that might previously have been ignored. That’s what happened earlier this year in a fatal Autopilot crash when the system ignored a truck making a left turn in front of a Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode. The car thought it would be passing under a road sign rather than realizing that there was an imminent crash threat.
In a conference call with journalists, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he believed this upgraded Autopilot system would have recognized the truck in that crash and applied the brakes. He also called using the radar as a primary sensor “a very hard problem” to solve, claiming that “no other” manufacturer could have done it without connecting all their cars to the cloud and using fleet learning (where vehicles report back on their surroundings so other cars can take advantage of their findings) to reduce false positives.
the car will gain an auto-autosteer feature, turning the wheel if a crash is imminent
Other changes will include an improved emergency braking mode that will allow Tesla’s Autosteer technology (a core component of Autopilot) to be activated if a crash is near-certain. In addition to activating the brakes, the car will be able to apply small steering inputs if it believes it can reduce the severity of an imminent crash.
The technology will use the existing radar sensors built into every Model S and X shipped since October of 2014 when the Autopilot feature was launched. Though Musk said they were approaching the limits of what could be achieved through the radar sensor hardware, he said that the Autopilot technology will be able to improve “for years to come” because of all the data being sent back to Tesla’s servers by the entire fleet of vehicles. Musk said Autopilot will continue to improve, even for customers with older cars, without needing hardware upgrades.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. But I was always told that it’s not possible. You can’t do it, it’s not going to work,” said Musk in response to a question from The Verge. “I really pushed hard on question all those assumptions in the last three to four months. There’s gotta be a way to make this thing work and now we believe there is.”