A video from December 27 shows Tesla Autopilot “seeing” a dangerous situation developing two cars ahead on a Dutch highway and activating emergency braking before the driver can react. The car immediately ahead is not so lucky. It crashed into the rear of an SUV two cars ahead, destabilizing the the SUV and sending it skittering down the highway on its side. According to all reports, there were no serious injuries to anyone as a result of the crash. In the video, the warning tone that announces emergency braking is occurring can be heard before there is any visual evidence to suggest a dangerous situation is about to happen.
Original video, authorisation from the owner. Essential, no one could predict the accident but the radar did and acted by emergency braking. pic.twitter.com/70MySRiHGR
— Hans Noordsij (@HansNoordsij) December 27, 2016
After Tesla and MobilEye parted company last summer, Tesla completely changed its Autopilot software. Previously, the camera — supplied by MobilEye — was the primary source of information for the system and the forward facing radar played a secondary role. After the firmware 8.0 update in September, those priorities were reversed. Now the radar is primary and input from cameras is secondary.
At the time the new software update was announced, Elon Musk explained that signals from the radar actually pass underneath and around a vehicle ahead. Echoes from vehicles further ahead are captured by the radar, allowing the Tesla Autopilot system to “see” what is going on two cars up the road. That allows the system to react to developing situations sooner than a human driver could. This video is proof the theory works as advertised in real world driving.
Since that update, Tesla has completely changed the hardware suite that provides input to the car’s central computer. Tesla Autopilot now includes a triple camera with a wide angle lens, a short focal point that sees directly in front of the car, and a third lens focused about 150 feet in front of the car. There are now cameras at each corner of the car and the 12 ultrasound sensors have been upgraded. They now have double the range of the originals.
There is also a new “supercomputer in a box” supplied by Nvidia that is said to be 40 times more powerful than the original. All cars built since October 19 are equipped with what the company calls its Hardware 2 package. Oddly enough, those cars are not yet as capable of semi-autonomous driving as cars with the original Hardware 1 package are. That’s because Tesla engineers are busy gathering data from the new system and calibrating it to work as advertised.
Tesla says it will begin rolling out the first of several software updates before the end of the year. Further updates are expected in the first few months of 2017. When the new system is fully operational, it will be capable of full Level 5 autonomous driving as soon as regulators approve the use of such systems. Curiously, Michigan — which is bitterly opposed to Tesla’s direct to consumer sales model — is now the only state that permits the sale of fully autonomous vehicles to the public. Within a few months, Tesla will be the only car company with fully autonomous cars available for sale to the public but it won’t be allowed to sell its cars there. Reality and politics often make for strange bedfellows.