The long-anticipated update to Tesla’s Autopilot system is due within two weeks’ time, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal following a conference call with reporters and a blog post on the company’s website. The revision will come in the form of software updates, delivered over the air, said Elon Musk, Tesla chief executive officer.

Affected vehicles to receive the software updates are those built since October 2014, Musk said, since Tesla models built before that time did not have the hardware used by the Autopilot system.

The key point to know about the Autopilot update is that it uses a greater dependence on radar signals to help Tesla vehicles in semi-autonomous mode safely navigate roads. The system also has more built-in safeguards to ensure drivers stay engaged at higher speeds.

But what, specifically, is involved in the Autopilot 8.0 updates? Here’s a brief summary of some of the more standout items.

The most significant part of the 8.0 update involves the use of “more advanced signal processing to create a picture of the world using the onboard radar.” While the radar was added to vehicles as part of the Autopilot suite in October 2014, it was “only meant to be a supplementary sensor to the primary camera and image processing system.”

Now, however, Tesla says it believes radar can be used as a “primary control sensor without requiring the camera to confirm visual image recognition.”

  • A big part of the problem with using radar is to stop false alarms. A more detailed cloud point helps with that issue. “Software 8.0 unlocks access to six times as many radar objects with the same hardware with a lot more information per object.”
  • Quicker assembly of the radar snapshots helps provide a 3D “picture” of the world. Comparing several contiguous frames with vehicle velocity and expected path allows the car to tell if something is real and assess collision probability.
  • Autopilot will gather data from other drivers of other Tesla vehicles – so-called “fleet learning” – to spot potential trouble spots. Data uploading will take place whether or not Autopilot is engaged.

“The net effect of this, 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,” the Tesla blog post continued.

But it gets even better: “…a Tesla will also be able to bounce the radar signal under a vehicle in front – using the radar pulse signature and photon time of flight to distinguish the signal – and still brake even when trailing a car that is opaque to both vision and radar. The car in front might hit the UFO in dense fog, but the Tesla will not.”

An important note about the latest changes is that the Autopilot system will disengage if drivers ignore three warnings in the course of one hour to keep their hands on the wheel. The only way to reactivate the system is to bring the vehicle to a complete stop and then restart it.

Would the new software updates have prevented the tragic death of Joshua Brown driving a Tesla Model S with Autopilot in Florida in May of this year? As Musk told reporters, including those at The Wall Street Journal during the conference call, it might have prevented the accident. “It would see a larger metal object across the road,” Musk said, referring to the tractor trailer Brown’s vehicle struck as it was crossing the highway in front of the Model S.

Musk also said that expert users are far more likely to be involved in Autopilot accidents than novices. He indicated that some users ignored 10 warnings in an hour to keep their hands on the wheel. Musk said they get very comfortable with it and repeatedly ignore warnings from the Autopilot-equipped car. “We really want to avoid that situation,” Musk said.

More Details on the Autopilot 8.0 Software Update

For those technically inquisitive individuals for whom more information is better, here’s a list of additional Autopilot release notes reprinted here directly from the Tesla blog post:

  • TACC braking max ramp rate increased and latency reduced by a factor of five
  • Now controls for two cars ahead using radar echo, improving cut-out response and reaction time to otherwise-invisible heavy braking events
  • Will take highway exit if indicator on (8.0) or if nav system active (8.1). Available in the United States initially
  • Car offsets in lane when overtaking a slower vehicle driving close to its lane edge
  • Interface alerts are much more prominent, including flashing white border on instrument panel
  • Improved cut-in detection using blinker on vehicle ahead
  • Reduced likelihood of overtaking in right lane in Europe
  • Improved auto lane change availability
  • Car will not allow reengagement of Autosteer until parked if user ignores repeated warnings
  • Automatic braking will now amplify user braking in emergencies
  • In manual mode, alerts driver if about to leave the road and no torque on steering wheel has been detected since Autosteer was deactivated
  • With further data gathering, car will activate Autosteer to avoid collision when probability ~100%
  • Curve speed adaptation now uses fleet-learned roadway curvature
  • (Approximately 200 small enhancements that aren’t worth a bullet point)

Too bad the software updates weren’t in place in May of this year. At least one untimely death might have been prevented.

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