Earlier this year, the driver of a Tesla Model S died while using the electric car company’s Autopilot semi-autonomous driving feature. The driver, Josh Brown, was traveling on a divided highway in Florida when he crashed into a tractor-trailer that made a left turn in front of his car. The Model S failed to brake.
On Sunday, Tesla introduced an update to its Autopilot system that may have prevented that fatal crash. Called Autopilot 8.0, the new system could cut accidents in Tesla vehicles by more than half compared with current system, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Even when the Autopilot feature is turned off, the car will automatically brake if it senses an impending collision.
At the center of the update are various improvements to the radar system built into every Tesla Model S and Model X since October 2014. In previous versions of Autopilot, radar served as confirmation of what had been detected by the system's primary sensor, which was a camera and image processing system.
The problem with that camera system is that it needed to be able to identify what an object was before it could react to it, and it couldn't always identify objects accurately. That seems to have been the problem with the Autopilot fatality in May because the system couldn't distinguish between the white side of the big rig and the bright sky.
Musk said "it's very likely" Autopilot 8.0 would have either prevented or mitigated the crash that killed Josh Brown because the new system "would see a large metal object across the road."
The advantage of making radar the primary system is that it can detect anything that's either metallic or dense, Musk said. It can also see through rain, fog, snow and dust. The disadvantage is that radar has difficulty sensing things that are "large and fluffy," he said.
It's updated software that allows the radar to access far more information about each object it's encountering. It assesses what's happening with the car ten times each second to figure out if an object is moving or stationery to help determine the probability of a collision and react, if necessary, by automatically braking.
With Autopilot 8.0, the radar can also bounce a signal under the vehicle that’s driving in front of the Tesla to determine the situation two cars ahead and react more quickly.
Other Autopilot improvements include a system that prevents the driver from re-engaging Autosteer if he ignores repeated audible warnings to put his hands back on the wheel three times in an hour. If so, the Autosteer feature will only re-engage after the driver has pulled over and parked.
While Autopilot "does not mean perfect safety," Musk said, it "improves the probability of safety... Perfect is the enemy of the good."
There has been one fatality in a Tesla with Autopilot engaged in 200 million miles of driving; the U.S. average is one fatality in 89 million miles of driving.
Tesla Autopilot 8.0 will be available in one or two weeks.
Sue Carpenter is co-host of SCRP's mobility series, The Ride.