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Tesla turns to radar to upgrade safety on EV autopilot

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Tesla Motors has announced a suite of updates to its electric vehicle autopilot system, a change the car maker says will amount to a “substantial improvement” in the safety of the technology recently linked to a fatal accident that killed a US Tesla driver.

The software updates – announced by Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk on Sunday via the customary blog post – will see the technology depend more on radar signals to guide vehicles, and add safeguards to keep drivers engaged at high speed.

Tesla-Autopilot-Traffic-Rain

Musk said the updates – relevant only to Tesla vehicles built since October 2014, before which time the Autopilot wasn’t included – would be delivered to drivers over the air, via a software upgrade, over the next two weeks.

Tesla’s autopilot technology – which the company has previously stressed should be used only as an extension of cruise control, rather than as a hands-off, autonomous driving technology – has come under scrutiny since an accident in Florida in May, where a Tesla driver using autopilot ploughed into a truck at high speed.

In June, Tesla said of the crash – which is being investigated by America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – that “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky,” so the brakes were never applied.

The government has also said in a preliminary report that Brown’s Tesla was traveling at 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour in a zone where the limit was 65 mph (100km/h).

In his blog post on Sunday, Musk said that the software update meant the radar function, which was originally added as a supplementary sensor to the primary camera and image processing system, could now be used as a primary control sensor without requiring the camera to confirm visual image recognition.

“The net effect of this,” Musk said, “combined with the fact that radar sees through most visual obscuration, is that the car should almost always hit the brakes correctly even if a UFO were to land on the freeway in zero visibility conditions.

“I am highly confident this will be a substantial improvement,” he said later in a conference call with reporters, reportedly adding that the enhanced radar even may have been enough to prevent the Florida accident.

“Ultimately, this will probably be a threefold improvement in safety,” he said in the conference call. “This is not going from bad to good. It’s going from good to, I think, great.”

Another significant change with the update will be applied to the technology Tesla calls Autosteer. While doing what the name suggests, the technology was also designed to encourage drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel. The update means that if drivers fail to put their hands back on the steering wheel after repeated warnings, the car will switch on its hazard lights, slow down and come to a stop. Autosteer will not be able to be reengaged until after the car has been parked.

Other elements of the update include controls for two cars ahead using radar echo, improving cut-out response and reaction time to otherwise-invisible heavy braking events; automatic use of highway exit if car indicator is on (8.0) or if nav system active (8.1); more prominent interface alerts; improved cut-in detection; improved auto lane change availability; and “approximately 200 small enhancements that aren’t worth a bullet point.”  

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  • john

    Tesla has a reputation of being very slow to release information about their products.
    In this particular case it would appear that LIDAR is going to be implemented, correct me if i am wrong.
    However yes they are doing a positive safety update good.
    Bad side, yes should have did it years ago granted no questions asked.

  • Brunel

    A Top Gear episode about 10 years ago showed a Mercedes S class that used a radar to have a cruise control system that would bring the Merc to a complete stop if the car in front came to a complete stop.

    A few years ago Subaru got 2 cameras instead of radar.

    At that point I thought that radar is too costly to be put into a Subaru.

    I suppose I was correct. And Tesla made a huge mistake to use a single cheap camera instead of radar.

    • Jay

      Tesla has had a forward facing radar since launch in 2012 AND a camera. What Musk is talking about here is advancing the technology in the radar and using it in complimentary with the existing camera.

  • Kenshō

    In the beginning, I had the impression EV’s would have fewer parts and less complexity to ICE vehicles. Tesla has other plans. Despite their rhetoric, green goals and humanitarian goals are well down their list of priorities. The company trades on greenwash, image and the future. Real delivery on their values is currently very low.