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Self-Driving Cars: Tesla Significantly Upgrades Next-Gen Autopilot

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author photo by Russ Heaps December 2016

Several carmakers are hard at work on comprehensive technologies for self-driving cars -- Tesla's Autopilot is just one such system. Tesla, though, has managed to separate itself from the crowd as the self-proclaimed leader in autonomous-driving systems, particularly among average consumers.

A brilliant self-promoter, Tesla's creative force Elon Musk has kept Tesla and Autopilot on the front pages for the past couple of years. In fact, he has been so effective that many (including some Tesla owners) actually believed Tesla had already cracked the code for self-driving cars. Last summer's Autopilot-related accident in Florida -- when the system failed to recognize a tractor-trailer truck across its path, crashing into it and killing the car's driver -- served as a wake-up call to many that Autopilot isn't quite ready for the prime time.

Since that fatal accident, Musk has gone out of his way to emphasize Autopilot's limitations. Be that as it may, Autopilot still grabs most of the autonomous vehicle (AV) attention. Whenever Tesla announces a new generation of the technology, it's worth taking a look. Oh, and though it may be unrelated, at about the same time Tesla announced the improved Autopilot 8.0, it also tacked $500 onto the optional system's price tag.

Radar Is the Star

Although there are a number of smaller updates, the big 8.0 news involves a huge leap forward in radar signal processing. This is a big deal, as radar hasn't played a huge role in Autopilot before. Incorporated into Autopilot software in 2014, radar has been the second banana to the camera and its processing system in terms of monitoring the car's environment and sending instructions to the semi-autonomous systems.

In 8.0, radar is poised to assume a role equal to the camera's That is: In many instances, Autopilot will respond to input from the radar system without verifying that input with the camera system.

Radar Hurdles

In the 8.0 announcement, Tesla listed several radar-related shortcomings that it had to overcome in updating its signal processing. Although radar has 20/20 vision through dust, fog, rain and snow (all conditions that limit a camera's effectiveness), it's unreliable for identifying wood or painted-plastic obstacles, which tend to be transparent to it. Radar only barely discerns people, and metallic surfaces look like mirrors, except when those metallic surfaces are dish-shaped. And not only is the image of a round metallic object reflected, but it's amplified several times as well -- a soda can in the road can appear like a 50-gallon drum to radar.

Furthermore, radar can't always recognize that overpasses and signs suspended over the road are generally harmless. This is particularly true in areas where the road dips and rises. When radar misinterprets such objects as road hazards, the emergency automatic braking engages.

Autopilot Fix

Every Tesla is a data-gathering laboratory relentlessly scooping up and storing input. Radar is processed as a series of snapshots. One snapshot isn't enough information on which to base a decision or reaction, but several snapshots present a more precise picture of an obstacle. Tesla engineers have not only increased the number of snapshots the system takes, and their frequency, but have also improved the way the system assembles those snapshots. Factoring in vehicle speed and the vehicle's projected path, the 8.0 radar is much better at making split-second determinations about which objects are hazardous and which are not.

Furthermore, Tesla will use its fleetwide data-gathering capability to continuously map objects. As more and more vehicles pass objects like overpasses unmolested, this info will be shared with the rest of the fleet.

Improved Safety

Autopilot 8.0 contains more than 200 enhancements. Some are huge, like the updated radar, while others are much less significant. In light of the Autopilot-related fatal accident in Florida, though, a couple of Autosteer enhancements deserve mentioning.

If Autosteer is disengaged, it will automatically engage to avoid a predicted collision. If a disengaged driver fails to respond to repeated warnings when Autosteer is activated, it will deactivate and won't reactivate until the car is stopped and shifted into park.

What it means to you: Truly self-driving cars may still be years away, but the technology continues to evolve.

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Used 2017 Tesla Model S
Used 2017 Tesla Model S
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Saving this vehicle to yourMy Autotrader account
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Used 2017 Tesla Model S AWD
Used 2017 Tesla Model S
$68,980
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Used 2017 Tesla Model S AWD
Used 2017 Tesla Model S
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Used 2017 Tesla Model S
Used 2017 Tesla Model S
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Self-Driving Cars: Tesla Significantly Upgrades Next-Gen Autopilot - Autotrader