Tesla asks for permission to gather video clips from cars in Autopilot update

May 10, 2017

Tesla recently rolled out its Autopilot 8.1 software update, offering nifty new features for folks who'd bought vehicles equipped with Tesla's Autopilot 2 hardware. Over the weekend, Tesla published yet another Autopilot update, bringing even more bells and whistles to later-model Tesla vehicles, along with some concerns about privacy.

What's new for Autopilot 2 vehicles?

  • The biggest change is that Tesla has increased the maximum speed for Autosteer functionality from 80 miles per hour (its new top end after the 8.1 update) to 90 miles per hour. Of course, that upper end is only available on highways. Elsewhere, Autosteer will work at speeds up to five miles faster than the posted speed limit. If the system doesn't detect a limit, it will top out at 45 mph.
  • Tesla has also updated Autopilot's Automatic Emergency Braking. You might recall that Consumer Reports slashed its safety rating for the Model S in April because Automatic Emergency Braking only worked in Autopilot 2 vehicles travelling at speeds of 28 mph or slower. It's not clear yet whether the recent update will be enough to persuade Consumer Reports to return the Model S to its top safety berth in the ultra-luxury car segment.
  • Tesla improved Side Collision Warnings so that vehicles not only notify drivers when there's an object near the side of the car, but also steer away from it. The feature works between 30 and 85 mph.
  • Tesla also added Automatic High Beams, which switch headlights from low- to high-beam, depending on whether Autopilot software identifies oncoming traffic.  

So, what's with the privacy issues? In association with the software update, Tesla asked owners for permission to gather data from their cars' external cameras. Why would it do that? To teach Autopilot how to navigate in real-world conditions. From the agreement:

"[W]e need to collect short video clips using the car’s external cameras to learn how to recognize things like lane lines, street signs, and traffic light positions. The more fleet learning of road conditions we are able to do, the better your Tesla’s self-driving ability will become."

Those sentences probably made some folks a little nervous, but Tesla has gone the extra mile to quell any concerns.

Most importantly, the data-sharing is optional. Owners don't have to agree to upload clips in order to get the Autopilot upgrade. Furthermore, if someone agrees to it today and has second thoughts tomorrow, she can opt out of the program.

Also, Tesla promises that it won't store information linking video footage to particular cars: "In order to protect your privacy, we have ensured that there is no way to search our system for clips that are associated with a specific car."

That sounds pretty solid to us--and honestly, the language Tesla uses isn't all that different from the data-sharing agreements that many of us sign on our computers, smartphones, and in apps, allowing creators to use crash stats to improve performance. 

The question is: when and if law enforcement or some other authority asks for footage from a specific vehicle, will Tesla find a way to provide it?

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