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Tesla preparing significant Autopilot upgrade, will use radar as 'primary sensor'

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Will use camera, radar, and a 'geocoded whitelist' to avoid crashes

Tesla is preparing a significant upgrade to its autopilot technology for a future software update, the company announced today. The biggest change is in how the company uses its radar sensors. Previously, a camera and image processing system were the primary sensors, backed up by data from the radar system to verify its findings — but going forward, the camera and radar will work side by side to detect obstacles. The improvements are expected in Tesla Software Update 8.0, planned for release in the next few weeks.

A "geocoded whitelist" of objects like road signs and bridges will help prevent false positives (and thus automatic braking for no reason, which can be alarming and dangerous), and allow the system to notice the potential for crashes that might previously have been ignored. That's what happened earlier this year in a fatal Autopilot crash when the system ignored a truck making a left turn in front of a Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode. The car thought it would be passing under a road sign rather than realizing that there was an imminent crash threat.

The whitelist is a GPS-coded map of objects like overhead signs that do not pose any threat to the car, allowing the radar system to safely disregard them and not trigger the brakes unnecessarily.

In a conference call with journalists, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he believed this upgraded Autopilot system would have recognized the truck in that crash and applied the brakes. He also called using the radar as a primary sensor "a very hard problem" to solve, claiming that "no other" manufacturer could have done it without connecting all their cars to the cloud and using fleet learning (where vehicles report back on their surroundings so other cars can take advantage of their findings) to reduce false positives.

the car will gain an auto-autosteer feature, turning the wheel if a crash is imminent

Other changes will include an improved emergency braking mode that will allow Tesla's Autosteer technology (a core component of Autopilot) to be activated if a crash is near-certain. In addition to activating the brakes, the car will be able to apply small steering inputs if it believes it can reduce the severity of an imminent crash.

The technology will use the existing radar sensors built into every Model S and X shipped since October of 2014 when the Autopilot feature was launched. Though Musk said they were approaching the limits of what could be achieved through the radar sensor hardware, he said that the Autopilot technology will be able to improve "for years to come" because of all the data being sent back to Tesla's servers by the entire fleet of vehicles. Musk said Autopilot will continue to improve, even for customers with older cars, without needing hardware upgrades.

"It's something that I've wanted to do for a while. But I was always told that it's not possible. You can't do it, it's not going to work," said Musk in response to a question from The Verge. "I really pushed hard on question all those assumptions in the last three to four months. There's gotta be a way to make this thing work and now we believe there is."

Tesla's cars will also be able to "bounce" the radar signal off of the ground beneath the car in front of it, giving some indication of what's happening in front of that car, out of sight of both the driver and the camera system. Tesla says that this could even prevent an accident where the leading car crashes into an object in dense fog but the trailing Tesla does not.

Another significant update to Autopilot will make it more difficult for drivers to ignore the road, something that Musk said was particularly prevalent among experienced Autopilot users. Though Tesla's system does not require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, visual and audible warnings require drivers to occasionally touch the wheel to confirm that they're paying attention. The warnings begin with a visual notice on the dashboard and then escalate to audible warnings.

three warnings and you're out

With the software update, drivers who ignore the warnings often enough to receive three audible warnings will see the Autopilot system disabled until they bring the car to a halt and put it in park. "New users with Autopilot are incredibly tentative. They pay attention very closely," Musk said. "But the people who know it best are where we see the biggest challenges." Musk noted that some drivers have a reflex response to the audible warning, reaching out and touching the wheel while never actually paying attention to the road. Tesla believes this restriction will be the most effective in reducing inattentive Autopilot use.

Other improvements will see the car add additional braking force when a driver brakes in an emergency situation and doesn't apply the brake pedal to 100 percent. Also, the Tesla will now move over in its lane when passing if the car being passed is driving close to the edge of its lane.

Musk said he expects Tesla Software Update 8.0 to be released in the next few weeks. It will be delivered over the air to eligible vehicles.