The system now takes more input from radar than cameras.
Tesla has announced a raft of updates in Autopilot 8.0, the latest version of its autonomous driving system. And the biggest change is a switch from reliance on cameras to radar.
The update can be applied to all Tesla Model S and Model X cars built since October 2014, which are fitted with radar sensors at the front. While radar can "see" further than cameras in bad weather, it had previously only been a backup system due to the problem of avoiding "false positives."
While radar is highly effective at detecting an object in the distance, determining the exact nature of that object can be problematic. Metallic surfaces become mirrors, people become partially translucent, and wooden and painted plastic surfaces become virtually see-through. Adding a curve can make an object appear smaller or larger than it actually is, too.
The net result could be lots of unnecessary braking events in response to objects that pose no danger to the car. But Tesla has solved the problem in the update by increasing the size of the radar "cloud," thereby gathering more information about an object. Comparing that information with the car’s movement allows the system to determine how likely an impact is.
"Fleet learning" has been added to the system, as well, to build up a database of every signpost, overhead gantry and bridge on the road network. In that way, Autopilot will know if the bridge that appears to be directly in the car’s path is actually over a depression in the road, or a signpost is just beyond a crest.
The radar sensor is also able to "bounce" its beam under a car directly in front in order to see what’s going on in front of it, reducing response time to any emergency situations that develop.
Object detection is now so effective, Tesla claims, that “the car should almost always hit the brakes correctly even if a UFO were to land on the freeway in zero visibility conditions.” Leaving the driver free to marvel that, you know, a UFO has just landed on the road.
Other updates include more prominent warnings, including a flashing white border around the instrument panel, whether or not Autopilot is engaged; the ability to take a highway exit when the indicators are used or the navigation activated; greater lane offset when overtaking, and more than 200 other items that improve Autopilot’s user-friendliness and safety margin.
At a press conference, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was asked if Autopilot 8.0 would have prevented the recent fatal in crash in Florida involving a Model S running with Autopilot engaged. "We believe it would have," Musk replied. But he added: "I do want to emphasize that this does not mean perfect safety. Perfect safety is really an impossible goal. It is about improving the probability of safety. That's really all you can accomplish."
Autopilot 8.0 will be rolled out within the next couple of weeks.