Electric-car maker Tesla yesterday announced big changes to the way its cars see the world while in autopilot mode, and company CEO Elon Musk went so far as to say going forward the new approach could prevent fatal crashes such as the one that killed a Model S-enthusiast in May.
In the past, Bloomberg reports the Tesla cars primarily relied on onboard cameras to detect the world around the vehicles, with onboard radar as a supplement. These sensors allowed the cars to operate in "autopilot mode" — steering and driving themselves (although the company has always stated that autopilot mode was a beta feature, and that humans should always remain in control). Now, thanks to improvements in how the car interprets incoming data, the radar will no longer play second fiddle.
"While there are dozens of small refinements with Version 8 of our software, described in addendum below, the most significant upgrade to Autopilot will be the use of more advanced signal processing to create a picture of the world using the onboard radar," reads a company announcement. "The radar was added to all Tesla vehicles in October 2014 as part of the Autopilot hardware suite, but was only meant to be a supplementary sensor to the primary camera and image processing system. After careful consideration, we now believe it can be used as a primary control sensor without requiring the camera to confirm visual image recognition."
The cameras are not getting ditched, it should be noted. Rather, they will now work in conjunction with the radar to provide a more-complete picture of the world around the car. The fact that radar is already installed in all Model S vehicles means that the change is largely a software one — the upgrade can take place without drivers needing to head to a shop.
This, Musk told reporters in a conference call reported by The Verge, is no small deal. He said had the new system been in effect last May, it would have likely braked in time to prevent the crash that killed Joshua Brown.
Also, the new software will crack down on drivers figuratively (or literally) sleeping at the autopilot wheel. Drivers still won't have to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, however if they fail to engage with the wheel after prompts from the car the autopilot feature will shut off (after numerous warnings, of course).
Musk had faced calls from Consumer Reports in July to remove the autopilot feature, with the organization alleging that drivers were given unrealistic expectations about the technology. The CEO wasn't swayed then, and his announcement this weekend shows that Tesla will continue to strive to improve the safety of his cars — one software upgrade at a time.