On Sunday, Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk announced that the latest major upgrade, version 8.0, to its Autopilot system-the function’s biggest software update yet, will be released within the next couple of weeks. The fix, which marks a strategic shift from reliance on cameras to using radar that can detect far more objects in the environment, aims to improve Tesla’s semi-autonomous driving system designed to hopefully avoid future accidents. The upgrade will be done through an over-the-air update and that means there is no need to change hardware or sensors.
The first known fatality of a Tesla driver was reported last May. Forty-year old Joshua Brown died when his Model S was driving in Autopilot mode. He crashed into a tractor-trailer that was making a turn. The electric car was said to have been moving at 74 miles per hour, 9 miles over the speed limit. Musk claimed that neither Autopilot nor the driver spotted the white trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.
According to Musk, the software update will bring in over 200 new safety features. Tesla launched Autopilot in 2015 introducing a car that was capable of autonomous driving. Aside from keeping pace with traffic, Tesla cars do switch lanes by simply tapping on the turn signals. The accuracy of these features has been enhanced with the update. Autopilot 8.0 also adjusts the speeds according to the road curves identified by the system.
Tesla drivers now have to pay more attention to the road while using the Autopilot mode. The car will remind the driver to keep their hands on the wheel. In case the driver ignores the warnings repeatedly, the car will have to be stopped and parked before the autonomous functions can be activated again.
A convenient autonomous feature of Tesla cars is the ability to enter or exit parking spots without a driver. The autopilot system can self-parallel park and park in a perpendicular position. It can also help the driver find the vacant parking spaces in the area. Tesla drivers can now be like Knight Rider calling on Kitt to pick them up.
Musk reveals that the most critical change in Autopilot 8.0 is that it will now be using the radar system as its primary control sensor. This is meant to increase the car’s ability to detect obstacles. The new system should detect “any thing that’s metallic, anything that is large and dense,” and then brake the vehicle, “as long as it’s not large and fluffy, ” Musk added. The new version should help the car control its brakes instead of using the camera for visual image detection.
The current Autopilot system uses its camera and image-processing system to determine if it will collide with a large object. It is equipped with a radar that is merely used as a second reference the images caught by the camera. The combination of these systems is what activates the car’s brakes to slow down or stop altogether. Unfortunately, the cameras have a hard time distinguishing shapes when it gets too bright or if the object is light-colored.
With the new software, the Autopilot software will detect radar signals no matter the weather condition.
Musk said, “It does not matter what the object is — it just knows that there’s something dense that it’s going to hit, and it should not hit that. Whereas a vision system really needs to know what that thing is.”According to Musk, the new Autopilot function “should almost always” avoid a collision in any situation, detecting objects as far as two cars ahead.