Tesla says it's improving Autopilot by boosting radar

September 12, 2016 by Bree Fowler
In this Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, file photo, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc., talks during a news conference at the company's headquarters in Fremont, Calif. Musk said Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, the electric car company is making major improvements to the Autopilot system used by its vehicles, which will dramatically reduce the number and severity of crashes they're involved in. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says the electric car company is making major improvements to the Autopilot system used by its vehicles, which will dramatically reduce the number and severity of crashes in which they are involved.

Sunday's news comes in the wake of a May crash involving a Tesla Model S that was using the semi-autonomous mode at the time. The driver died after crashing into a tractor-trailer.

On a conference call with reporters, Musk said he thinks that the improvements, which will roll out globally in the next week or two in the form of a software update, probably would have prevented that crash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is investigating the crash, said Sunday that Tesla has provided it with information about the changes to Autopilot, which it will review. It declined to provide an update on its Tesla investigation.

Musk called the upgrades a "massive enhancement," but he said that Tesla cars are already the safest on the road.

"It's not about going from bad to good," Musk said on the call. "Things are already good. I think it's about going from good to great."

While he acknowledged that there's no such thing as perfect security, he predicted that the improvements will cut the accident rate for Tesla vehicles by more than half.

Tesla's Autopilot system can maintain a set speed, keep the car within its lane and brake automatically. Radar, which was added to all Tesla vehicles starting in October 2014, currently helps the car see things that may be blocked to cameras in bright sunlight or bad weather.

The improvements announced Sunday call for Autopilot to rely more on radar and less on vehicle cameras. As part of that shift, the radar will use more advanced signal processing to create a better picture of the surrounding world.

Musk said that he has wanted to make these kinds of improvements to Autopilot since last year, but he was told it couldn't be done for various technical reasons.

"We really pushed hard on questioning all of those assumptions over the past few months," he said. "It was just a very hard problem. Nobody else could solve this."

According to Tesla, one of the biggest challenges was the need to eliminate false positives. While slamming on the brakes is crucial if a driver is about to hit another vehicle, it isn't if they're about to hit something smaller, like garbage in the road. And these kinds of stops always have the potential to cause injury, making a false positive potentially dangerous.

But Musk said the company was eventually able to solve that problem through software improvements. He added that he expects the radar system to continue to improve over the next several months, as the company collects more data and makes changes.

Explore further: Tesla planning upgrade to semi-autonomous Autopilot system

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PhysicsMatter
1 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2016
The problem is that radar gives too many false positives as any radar detector owners could testify to.
Eikka
1 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2016
"It's not about going from bad to good," Musk said on the call. "Things are already good. I think it's about going from good to great."


Please. The technology is in its infancy and half the problems are yet to surface.

Just wait for the day when two Teslas drive side by side on the highway and blind each others' radars and sonars. That happens with ships at ports - even if they're using different frequencies, the reciever gets blocked by off-band noise when one ship's beam hits another ship's radar dish at a close range.

Imagine the radio cacophony of ten autonomous vehicles at an intersection.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2016
radar gives too many false positives

Better a false positive than a false negative (i.e. "better safe than sorry").
And since this is a multi-sensor system (cameras and radar) there's always some redundancy to make up for false signals from one system.
Eikka
1 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2016
Better a false positive than a false negative (i.e. "better safe than sorry").


Except when they cause you to get rear ended or slam your head on the steering wheel. As the article states, the false positive is not "safe" because it makes the car act erratically:

"these kinds of stops always have the potential to cause injury, making a false positive potentially dangerous."

Having false positives puts more "cognitive load" on the AI software, which in every example of a self-driving car today is dumber than a sack of hammers. There isn't really any good solution to the problem yet because of the primitive AI running on slow computers with small power budgets.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Sep 12, 2016
If the cost of one less fatal accident is one (or even a dozen) more non-fatal ones then that's a good trade.

There are no such things as perfect systems, and in the end this is a driver *assist* system. Not a "let-the-car-do-everything-and-close-your-eyes"-system. You have to start somewhere and work up from there.

To expect a new paradigm to be perfect right out of the gate is just idiotic. No technology in the history of the world has managed that. And yet: many technologies have manged to get to a point where the residual dangers are far outweighed by the gains.
Just waiting until you have a 'perfect' system on paper doesn't mean you'll have one in real life applications. Not in autopilots and not in nuclear technology. But at some point you just have to implement it and see how it works.
Gaby_64
3 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2016
Eikka

frequencies are not the only option, you can encode a unique identifier for every car in the signal
thisisminesothere
1 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2016

There are no such things as perfect systems, and in the end this is a driver *assist* system. Not a "let-the-car-do-everything-and-close-your-eyes"-system. You have to start somewhere and work up from there.


Im not sure how people can believe that a system that BASICALLY drives itself on the road wouldnt be used as an "auto"pilot as opposed to an assistant. Its simply not within humans to be attentive with doing nothing. Once you get comfortable with the technology driving you around, you WILL get distracted in some fashion, putting your focus on other things.

To me, this is an all or nothing scenario. Either car drives for you and you can nod off as you please, or you are in control with no illusions that the car will keep you safe. I dont see how humanity can have a middle ground with automobiles.

And please dont tell me the autopilot scenario with planes. Pilots are trained for hours on the systems. They are, by no means, equivalents.
Eikka
not rated yet Sep 13, 2016
Eikka

frequencies are not the only option, you can encode a unique identifier for every car in the signal


Interference still adds noise and the system is listening to a very weak echo. If the noise exceeds the signal, even complex coding methods fail and getting a reliable radar fix becomes impossible.

And because the cars are listening for faint echoes, they can directly blind each other by saturating the reciever, in which case it doesn't matter what sort of encodings or identifiers you use because the blinded car can't hear anything anyhow.

It's like using flashlights to morse your buddy a mile away, and then a third person comes along and sticks his flashlight right in your eye. The dynamic range of the reciever isn't enough to make out both the strong direct signal and the weak return signal at the same time.

A Tesla car in the oncoming lane can directly blind another Tesla car, and if the road's full of them, it's just going to be mayhem.
Eikka
not rated yet Sep 13, 2016
you WILL get distracted in some fashion, putting your focus on other things.


As I've said before: if you have to keep squeezing the steering wheel with your knuckles white just waiting for the car to make a mistake and try to kill you, you're better off not using the "autopilot".

If you can't trust it, it's more stressful than without.

The problem is that Elon Musk is pushing for the minimum viable product, so he's not concerned of the practical issues until they become issues. By the time there are enough Teslas on the roads for the radar interference to become a problem, these first versions have long since been scrapped.
Eikka
not rated yet Sep 13, 2016
and in the end this is a driver *assist* system. Not a "let-the-car-do-everything-and-close-your-eyes"-system.


Then why call it an autopilot?

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