How Tesla's Autopilot radar will now learn from human drivers
Tesla makes safety improvements following crashes
Tesla has upgraded the self-driving software in its cars to take advantage of their onboard radar, which they have had since 2014.
The update to Autopilot, which is billed by the company as the technology's "most significant upgrade", will use more advanced signal processing to create a picture of the world using the onboard radar.
Version eight of the software will see the car relying less on the vehicle's cameras and more on radar.
"This is a non-trivial and counter-intuitive problem, because of how strange the world looks in radar," the company said in a blog post.
"Photons of that wavelength travel easily through fog, dust, rain and snow, but anything metallic looks like a mirror. The radar can see people, but they appear partially translucent. Something made of wood or painted plastic, though opaque to a person, is almost as transparent as glass to radar."
It added that any metal surface with a dish shape is not only reflective but also amplifies the reflected signal to many times its actual size. The concave bottom of a tin can appears to be much larger than it is to radar, making it appear like a large, dangerous object to be avoided. This can cause unnecessary braking of the car, which it said would be "at best be very annoying and at worst cause injury".
Other problems to be overcome are interpreting overhead signs and bridges, which can be misinterpreted when a road dips.
"Initially, the vehicle fleet will take no action except to note the position of road signs, bridges and other stationary objects, mapping the world according to radar," said the firm.
"The car computer will then silently compare when it would have braked to the driver action and upload that to the Tesla database. If several cars drive safely past a given radar object, whether Autopilot is turned on or off, then that object is added to the geocoded whitelist."
The firm added that the net effect of the improvements would be that a car should almost always hit the brakes correctly "even if a UFO were to land on the freeway in zero visibility conditions".
Other updates will now ensure the driver has their hands on the wheel when Autopilot is engaged.
The upgrade comes after a driver in a Tesla car died when the technology failed to spot a truck in its path.
01/09/2016: Tesla's Autopilot software update makes automated cars safer
Tesla's founder Elon Musk has revealed the company will be rolling out a new version of its Autopilot software embedded in vehicles.
The software automates some aspects such as lane changing if the coast is clear, making Tesla's cars semi-automated. To do this, it uses radar tech to track whether there are obstacles in its way before changing lanes.
Although the company hasn't revealed the exact mechanics of the version 8.0 and 8.1 updates and how they will make the journey smoother and safer, Musk tweeted: "Major improvements to Autopilot coming with V8.0 and 8.1 software (std OTA update) primarily through advanced processing of radar signals," suggesting the changes will be pretty major.
The news comes following a fatal collision back in May, when a Tesla vehicle crashed, killing its driver and the passenger.
Although neither Tesla nor investigators were able to confirm the accident was down to the automated tech in the car failing, Tesla is obviously eager to reassure its customers the technology is completely safe and Autopilot will continue to evolve as automated vehicles become the norm.
However, the Autopilot feature can also be a lifesaver, as demonstrated when the driver of a Tesla Model X was driven to hospital by the car when he suspected he was having a heart attack.
The update will be pushed out over-the-air as all its car updates are rolled out, in a way similar to smartphone or tablet updates, making it a much easier way to ensure all Tesla cars are as safe as each other, rather than relying on the owner to head to a garage to get their vehicle's computer updated.
Musk said more details of the update will be revealed on the company's blog soon.
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