Tesla Updating Autopilot Feature With Radar, Driver Engagement Safety Check

Two months after Tesla said its Autopilot feature wasn’t going anywhere amid a federal safety investigation into what part the feature played in the first fatal crash to occur while the semi-autonomous function was activated, the electric carmaker has unveiled a software update that it claims will better incorporate the use of radar, and which the company says could have prevented the May crash.

Tesla unveiled Version 8 of its Autopilot software on its blog Sunday, announcing changes to the way in which drivers must keep their hands on the wheel and improvements to the onboard radar system’s ability to detect surroundings through rain, fog, or dust.

Version 8 updates, which should be available in one to two weeks, include a revamped signal processing system used to create a picture of the world using the onboard radar.

The radar function, previously added in October 2014, was used as a supplementary sensor to the primary camera and image processing system. In some cases, a Tesla might not react to something the radar saw if the camera didn’t see it.

However, Tesla now feels that it could be used as a primary control sensor without requiring the camera to confirm visual recognition. This, the company says, will allow the system to avoid false positives — where the radar senses an obstacle that isn’t there and brakes needlessly.

For example, Tesla says something as innocuous as a discarded soda can could be detected by the current radar system as large and dangerous obstacle.

“Slamming on the brakes is critical if you are about to hit something large and solid, but not if you are merely about to run over a soda can,” the company says. “Having lots of unnecessary braking events would at best be very annoying and at worst cause injury.”

Under the updated system, Tesla vehicles operating in Autopilot will detect anything metallic, large, or dense and begin “mild braking,” even if the camera doesn’t notice the object ahead.

“As the system confidence level rises, the braking force will gradually increase to full strength when it is approximately 99.99% certain of a collision,” the company says.

While Tesla admits this won’t prevent collisions entirely, it believes the update will reduce the impact speeds dramatically to the point “where there are unlikely to be serious injuries to the vehicle occupants” — such as the May accident that killed the driver of a 2015 Model S.

The crash occurred on a divided highway, where the Model S collided with a tractor-trailer that was making a left turn across the Tesla driver’s lane.

Neither the driver nor the Autopilot system saw the tractor-trailer, a problem that Tesla blamed on the combination of a “brightly lit sky” and the reflective surface of the trailer.

Our colleagues down the hall at Consumer Reports, which plans to test the new update when it became available, note that integrating the radar system more is an important step.

“Making the camera and radar systems work side by side is an important step in establishing redundancies where each system can back the other up in conditions where they don’t have full capabilities,” Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports director of auto testing, said. “This is a key part of safety in semi-autonomous cars where none of the systems have yet proven to be fail-safe.”

In addition to relying on the integrated radar systems to detect objects, Tesla says that drivers who ignore three audible warnings in an hour to put their hands on the wheel will have to pull over and restart the vehicle to use Autopilot.

Drivers can indefinitely keep their hands off the wheel under 8 miles an hour, such as in stop-and-go traffic conditions. Below 45 miles an hour, drivers can keep their hands off the wheel for about five minutes, he said. Above 45 miles an hour, the limit is about one minute unless the Tesla has a car to follow, and then it’s about three minutes.

While the new warning system can help ensure driver engagement, CR is still concerned with the amount of time drivers can have their hands off the week or their eyes off the road.