Tesla Overhauls Autopilot With Massive Upgrade, It Will Be Safer And Smarter

Tesla Model S driving with Autopilot 6 photos
Photo: Screenshot from video
Tesla Model S driving with AutopilotTesla Model S driving with AutopilotTesla Model S driving with AutopilotTesla Model S driving with AutopilotTesla Model S driving with Autopilot
Tesla has made another update to its Autopilot system, on top of the Version 8 of its operating software.
The latest update is purely in software, but it intensifies the use of existing hardware to provide a new level of safety. The central part of the change is the Autopilot’s increased use of radar.

All Tesla vehicles have radar technology since October 2014 (including those built before that date — as it was added afterward), and the tech was only employed for certain functions.

Until this update, Tesla cars used their optics system to observe an obstacle and act upon it. Radar could also find obstacles, but Autopilot did not act upon that information until it received visual confirmation from the optical system.

The update will make radar the equal of the optical system in the “eyes” of Autopilot, as both will be able to see an obstacle and prompt the vehicle to perform an action.

Tesla explained that radar technology had not received such a focus from Autopilot because of the weird way it “sees” the world. Small metal objects can appear bigger on radar, and those with a dish shape (think of the bottom of a can of soda) can reflect a signal many times their actual size.

In layman’s terms, a plain soda can on the road looks like a big metal box, which could make the system think the car is about to hit something, and apply the brakes.

On the other hand, radar does not “see” wood, painted plastic, or similar surfaces, which appear translucent to it. That is where the optical system comes in to help.

Radar technology can spot humans, but they still appear partially translucent to it, and the same problem applies to small animals, and even larger ones. Cats and dogs might be invisible to radar, but the optics system should spot them and avoid an impact.

Tesla did not just give the built-in radar tech more importance within Autopilot, but also uses it to “map” the world. As you know, the automaker fitted all of its cars with an Internet connection, which sends data back to “mother base” in real time. In the case of radar technology, the fleet of Tesla cars will send recorded radar alerts to the headquarters to avoid “false positives.”

In other words, instead of applying the brakes whenever the radar system is unsure if the object it sees is hazardous or not, the item is mapped into Tesla’s world map. Once several Tesla cars pass by the same element, it becomes whitelisted in Tesla's 3D map. Any new item will get the same treatment.

So false alarms will exist within the system, but the application of the brake will be limited at first to avoid false alarms. Once the miles add up, the system will become confident, and braking force will gradually increase to 99.9% when the technology reaches maturity.

Tesla has also thought of a way to “bounce” radar beneath and around vehicles that are in front of its cars. This will allow its models to “see” what is ahead of the car that it follows, and it will bring the capability of stopping for an obstacle that was not spotted by the first vehicle on time to pursue evasive action.

The other significant capability added by this update is the ability to autonomously exit the highway using the indicator or the navigation system (if a destination is set). Initially, the feature will only be available in the USA.

The American automaker has also added a few limitations to Autopilot, which will not engage Autosteer again until it is parked if the driver ignores repeated warnings.

The change mentioned above will prevent distracted driving. Other refinements include better lane change, curve speed adaptation, numerous small enhancements, and the automatic amplification of the user-applied braking force in an emergency situation.

If there is still need to explain, Tesla's Autopilot system is not an entirely autonomous driving mode, and still requires human supervision. Keep your eyes on the road and at least a hand on the wheel when using Autopilot.
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About the author: Sebastian Toma
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Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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