For several months, Tesla has been promising to update Autopilot, its semi-autonomous driving software. Over the weekend, Tesla confirmed some of the speculation surrounding Autopilot 8.0 and put other rumors to rest.
The company did so via a blog post, which revealed right off the bat that the new Autopilot software will rely more heavily on radar. This is almost certainly in response to the fatal crash linked to Autopilot that made headlines in July.
Cameras vs. radar
Tesla began installing radar hardware on its vehicles in October 2014. However, Autopilot has relied primarily on camera and imaging systems to understand the driving environment. Radar has been more of a backup system, providing supplemental data.
In Autopilot 8.0, however, radar will take a front-seat role. While allowing cameras and radar to work hand-in-hand might sound like an easy change, it's actually quite complicated because they view the world very differently.
Cameras rely heavily on light to see the surrounding environment, much as humans do. That works well when conditions are fair, but in inclement weather or at night, it can cause problems.
Radar, on the other hand, ignores rain, darkness, and fog, but it has trouble spotting some materials like wood. And though radar is great at identifying metal, it can, as Ryan Lochte might say, "over-exaggerate" obstacles like tin cans, depending on the shape of the debris.
And so, to avoid false braking events triggered by radar, Tesla has built in a couple of important safeguards:
1. Before hitting the brakes, Autopilot will compare multiple radar images of an object to verify that it's worth braking for. (Because Tesla's radar generates ten images per second, it can do that without putting passengers at risk.) So, for example, a soda can in the road might at first look like a serious obstacle, but subsequent images will reflect at different angles, giving radar a better picture of the object.
2. Autopilot will gather data from other drivers to spot tricky environments. A road dipping under a bridge might look like major trouble to Autopilot, but info from other Tesla vehicles will confirm that it's nothing to worry about. The uploading of data will take place whether or not Autopilot is engaged.
If radar had played a more prominent role in Autopilot on May 7, Joshua Brown might not have died in Williston, Florida. Radar would've likely identified the tractor-trailer crossing the highway in front of Brown's Model S and hit the brakes. As it was, however, Autopilot's cameras couldn't distinguish between the white side of the semi and the bright white of the sky. While that does nothing to ease the pain that the Brown family is experiencing, it does suggest that fewer families will have to endure similar losses in the future. That's a significant improvement.
Autopilot 8.0 will also be capable of detecting objects beyond the vehicle immediately in front of the Tesla. The company says that the upgraded Autopilot "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."
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Also new in 8.0 is an Autopilot shut-off. Despite what some drivers think--and what some Tesla sales staff might've insinuated--Autopilot is not autonomous driving software. Drivers are supposed to keep their hands on the steering wheel and their attention on the road. Tesla has a built in system of alerts and warnings if drivers aren't behaving safely, but rumor had it that the company planned to disable Autopilot for offenders, at least temporarily. Apparently, those rumors were correct.
And it appears that even when Autopilot is turned off, it will turn itself on when it detects that a collision is imminent.
Tesla's bulletpointed list of major updates for Autopilot 8.0 includes:
- 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
LIDAR still AWOL
Most automakers developing autonomous driving software employ LIDAR, which works similarly to radar, but relies on lasers and light rather than radar's radio waves. Tesla has poo-pooed LIDAR, insisting that it's too susceptible to weather glitches (in much the same way that Autopilot's cameras are). However, when weather conditions are favorable, LIDAR has often proven itself superior to both radar and cameras in creating maps of its environment.
Though LIDAR technology is usually pretty big, spy shots from test tracks have revealed smaller, hockey puck-sized LIDAR units on Tesla vehicles lately. Using LIDAR on Autopilot would require more than a software upgrade, though: it would require new hardware.
Tesla doesn't clarify when Autopilot 8.0 will begin rolling out to owners. However, given the thoroughness of the list above, we'd expect it to happen soon.