Tesla has announced a number of software upgrades to its semi-autonomous cars that will be installed into all existing production cars ‘over-the-air,’ in the next few weeks.
“This is quite a massive enhancement,” said Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, of the software upgrades. “I wish we could have done it earlier.”
The new software will primarily upgrade the Autopilot function with new safety features that increase the use of on-board radar to detect obstacles and prevent collisions. No new hardware will be required for the software upgrade, but Musk had to admit, getting it to fit had been a challenge in itself.
The Tesla autopilot feature uses 12 ultrasonic sensors and a radar in the front bumper. Previously however, Tesla’s car relied mostly on a forward mounted camera to avoid collisions. The new software upgrade has instead pushed the collision avoidance burden to the forward facing radar. Pinging outward 10 times every second, the radar builds a 3d image with each returned reflective pulse as the car moves, with the hope of being more effective and accurate in real world driving conditions.
Musk pointed out that radar worked better in low visibility situations like fog, or bright facing sunlight, and is able to sense stopped obstacles such as car accidents before the on-board camera or driver can.
The new software upgrade will also include more monitoring and warnings for drivers to make sure they are paying attention when driving their Tesla car manually. Musk also said that he hoped the new software would help soften some of the negativity by some groups of the company’s self-driving technology.
Tesla and its rollout of self-driving cars has been criticised by some consumer rights groups as both “aggressive,” and extremely misleading. Key among their points is the idea that the term “autopilot” was at worst dangerous, and at best extremely misleading.
Musk admits that it’s impossible to avoid every accident. “You have these rare events occasionally—they’re tragic—but to eliminate all of them we’d be limited to sitting at home on a pillow. I think we’re making the Model S and X by far the safest cars on the road. I don’t think there’s even a model within a multiple,” he says.
In May this year, a Tesla driver was tragically killed when his Tesla car hit a lorry that had been turning. The autopilot on-board camera failed in that instance to differentiate between the stopped white trailer against the bright sky.