Tesla owners are receiving a major software upgrade from the company this week. Version 8 of the firmware that operates all Tesla automobiles marks a major shift for the company and will have implications for all other autonomous driving systems. It also includes about 200 modifications, most of which are too minor to require a bullet point, according to the latest Tesla Motors blog post.
Here’s the big news, which Elon Musk has been hinting at for weeks. Largely as a result of the accident that killed Joshua Brown on a Florida highway in May, Tesla has significantly altered how its Autopilot system works. When the company first starting installing the hardware that makes Autopilot possible in October, 2014, the front facing radar unit was thought of as an adjunct to the camera supplied by MobilEye. The camera was primary, the radar was secondary in terms of which input was given priority by the car’s on board computer.
Now, those roles have been reversed. The computer will now rely primarily on input from the radar unit. The camera will play a secondary role. All other manufacturers and companies like Uber rely heavily on visual images provided by LIDAR sensors. LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging. It uses laser beams to probe the surrounding environment and report back information about other cars, pedestrians, and obstacles in the area.
Its images are highly precise but suffer from one serious drawback. Lasers cannot reliably penetrate smoke, haze, rain, snow, smog, or other atmospheric conditions that interfere with seeing what is ahead. Radar can, but it can also perform another trick. It actually “sees” ahead of a vehicle in front of it by analyzing the echo returned by radio waves that pass underneath and around the car ahead. As a result, the new Tesla software allows the car to detect if a car two cars ahead is slamming on its brakes and plan accordingly.
The new software increases the refresh rate of the data coming from the radar to 10 times a second. By comparing the “snapshot” from each frame with the latest information, the system can do a better job of recognizing objects in three dimensions. When Joshua Brown’s Model S rammed broadside into a tractor trailer, the car’s computer apparently mistook the truck for an overhead road sign. Elon Musk says the new software might well have prevented that accident.
For some, that raises the possibility that Tesla was negligent in releasing its Autopilot system before it was perfected. But Tesla’s position is that Autopilot is already far safer than human drivers and it is only going to get better with feedback from real world experience. So far, federal regulators seem to support that position. Tesla will use fleet learning to “teach” each car — and every other Tesla that drives in the same area — which objects are dangerous and which are benign.
Musk says the new software is so effective, “The net effect of this, combined with the fact that radar sees through most visual obscuration, is that the car should almost always hit the brakes correctly even if a UFO were to land on the freeway in zero visibility conditions.” Elon loves hyperbole, which has sometimes caused problems for the company.
Autopilot has caused more than one controversy. Many drivers report being unsure whether the system is engaged or not. The new software eliminates any chance of error. New visual and audible cues have been added to better communicate with drivers when the system is engaged. It also adds new features that warn drivers to place their hands on the steering wheel. First, the instrument panel lights up with a white band around its border. If that doesn’t work, an audible alarm will sound and the system will deactivate itself.
What happens next is when things get really interesting. If Autopilot shuts itself off three times in an hour, the “red hands of death” appear on the instrument panel and the system cannot be reactivated until the car comes to a complete halt and is placed in Park. That feature is apparently one small concession by Elon Musk to his critics who charge he is pushing this autonomous driving thing too far, too fast.
The upshot of all these changes is that Tesla has altered the rules of the self driving game once again by electing to make radar the core of its Autopilot system. It is the only manufacturer to do so and may force the others to play catch up all over again. No matter what, Tesla always seems to be 5 jumps ahead of the competition. Keep in mind that all of these changes were downloaded to every Tesla ever made wirelessly, something that other manufacturers can’t even do.
When it first came out, Autopilot was a game changer. Now Tesla has gone and changed the game again. It may or may not ever make a profit, but when it comes to rolling out disruptive technology after disruptive technology, it is clearly in a league of its own.