Radar in Tesla's Autopilot Update will See Beyond Human Eyes

Why the next version will be three times safer than you behind the wheel.


On Sunday, Tesla unveiled version 8 of its Autopilot driver-assist technology. The update, though it doesn’t amount to an Autopilot 2.0, is a big advancement for one reason: radar.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says that Teslas with the new version of Autopilot — it’ll be released in two weeks — will be three times safer than traditional, human-driven cars. Version 8, Musk claims, will make “the Model S and the Model X by far the safest cars on the road.”

In May, a man riding in a Tesla Model S on Autopilot in Florida was killed when his car passed under a tractor trailer. It was the first Autopilot-related fatality, and led to a public backlash. Musk, in a press conference, said that Tesla believes this version would have avoided crashes like that one, because radar would have detected a tractor-trailer.


Previous versions of Tesla Autopilot relied on radar only as a supplement to computer vision, which ran the show. This has long been the self-driving car philosophy: Teach computers to see like humans — to recognize objects — and then enable them, with this ability, to drive like humans. The problem is that computer vision isn’t perfect; these systems need to be trained extensively, and even then are fallible. Against the wrong background and in bad lighting, for instance, a computer might not recognize a tractor trailer.

Radar, on the other hand, doesn’t need to understand anything. It’ll send radio waves in all directions, and the way these waves bounce back tells the system what’s around. The roadblock, if you will, has been false-positives. Certain materials — wood, painted plastic, metals, and others — either confuse or are invisible to radar. Tesla feared that if it relied on radar, something as innocuous as a soda can on the side of the road could lead its vehicles to slam on the brakes.

But now, Tesla is confident that its radar is trustworthy. If radar detects an object that it would have otherwise taken as dangerous, but the driver acts unperturbed and is not affected, then it will signal to the rest of the fleet that the particular object is not dangerous. The system communicates the fact that at these coordinates, at this spot on the road, the questionable object is just an innocuous soda can. Soon, there will be 200,000 Teslas driving around the world. Eventually, there could be millions. With each additional Tesla, the system gets wiser: More Teslas yield more data — more information about roads in real time. That is, of course, assuming the roads stay the same.

And radar, unlike computer vision systems, can see beyond what humans can see. The radio waves bounce under and past cars, and their returns inform the car about what’s beyond the driver’s field of view. Tesla Autopilot, in other words, can virtually see through objects. “Even if there’s something that was obscured directly both in vision and radar, we can use the bounce effect of the radar to look in front of that car and still brake,” Musk said.

…But That’s Not All

It’s not just advanced radar processing that substantiates Musk’s three-times-safer claim. If the system determines that a crash is over 99.99 percent likely, then it will kick on Autosteer to prevent the crash. (Teslas will already help you slow down if a crash is likely, but taking over steering is risky unless a crash is near-certain. If driver and computer disagree about how to avoid the collision, no one wins.) But it will only do so if the user has enabled this Emergency Autosteer feature.

In addition, those who ignore their car’s warnings to keep their hands on the wheel three times within an hour will be forced to pull over and restart the car if they wish to re-enable Autosteer. Musk said that even though latency — or, basically, reaction time — was “already better than a human,” Tesla made it five times better. As expected, Version 8 will make it possible for Autopilot to exit highway off-ramps by just triggering the turn signal. Version 8.1, if the car knows its destination, will automatically take the appropriate highway exit.

Musk has had a relatively difficult few weeks. His SpaceX rocket blew up for mysterious reasons, and critics have been all over his decision to merge Tesla and SolarCity. This update, assuming its rollout in two weeks goes smoothly, should put a smile back on the visionary’s face.

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