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Tesla's next Autopilot update will rely more on radar

Engadget Engadget 11/09/2016 Roberto Baldwin
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Today Tesla announced that its upcoming Autopilot 8.0 update will rely more on radar than previous versions of the semi-autonomous feature. Plus it will penalize inattentive drivers.

Tesla said that it would use the radar sensors added to vehicles starting in October 2014 along with advanced signal processing to see the world. Initially those sensors were supplementary with the onboard cameras handing most of the input.

Now the automaker is putting that radar front and center in order to help the cars travel through bad weather conditions like, snow, fog, dust and rain. Traditional cameras become less reliable as the visual field becomes more dense. That's where the radar will come in. "Even if you're driving down the road and the visibility is very low and there's a multi-car pile up, the camera can't see it, but the radar would and apply the brakes," Musk said.

Tesla does note that reflective surfaces create issues with radar. It gives the example of a concave soda can amplifying its return signal. These sort of false positives are why the automaker was using radar as a supplement to other sensors.

But Tesla is confident it's been able to reduce those sort of false positives with the upcoming software update by creating 3D snapshots of the world with all the vehicles' radar sensors to determine the actual size of an object. It will also use fleet learning to reduce unintended braking from large stationary objects like street signs appearing over ridges by assigning geolocation data to those locations.

Musk believes that the update would probably cut accidents by more than half. But he cautioned, "this does not mean perfect safety. Perfect safety is really an impossible goal. It's really about improving the probably of safety." He added that the reason Autopilot is called beta is to reduce driver's comfort level while it's on. "It's really not beta," he said.

The update will also penalize inattentive drivers. If the car determines that someone does not have their hands on the wheel and throws an audible warning three times in an hour, it will lock the driver out of the feature. In order to re-enable Autopilot, the car will have to be pulled over and put in park.

Musk also noted that the drivers that end up with the most warnings to pay attention to the road are veterans of the system. They become too reliant on its benefits.

When pressed about whether the upcoming update would have saved the life of Joshua Brown who's Model S slammed into a semi truck while in Autopilot he said, "we believe it would have."

Musk said that the update could potentially roll out in the next week or two and that the company believes it "will improve not just the safety but the comfort and feel of Autopilot."

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