Elon Musk Says Autopilot Will Soon Recognize Emergency Response Vehicles

Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances are coming to the neural net. 

by James Dennin

The only thing more important to Elon Musk than making sure riding a Tesla is fun is making sure it’s safe. On Friday Musk shared some ideas for the first half of the equation, saying that the upcoming software update will include a bunch of new games and something called romance mode. Then over the weekend, Musk alluded to impending software updates that could make the vehicles even safer than they already are.

This is all according to some tweets Musk made in response to news reports about a DUI where Tesla autopilot may have been involved. According to a local ABC affiliate, authorities were able to get a car suspected to be operating on autopilot to pull over while the driver was passed out by driving their police car in front of the Tesla and then slowing down. A Twitter user and self-professed Musk fan then mused whether it would be possible to create a function where, if autopilot recognized that a driver was unconscious, it would pull over, turn on the hazard lights, and call the police.

It was at this point that Musk chimed in with some context about how autopilot works in these situations now, and how the safety of autonomous driving might be improved in upcoming software updates.

“Default Autopilot behavior, if there’s no driver input, is to slow gradually to a stop & turn on hazard lights,” Musk explained in the replies. “Tesla service then contacts the owner.”

That naturally got people wondering whether or not Tesla’s autopilot was capable of differentiating between emergency response vehicles and everyone else. Presumably, someday soon autonomous vehicles are going to be able to recognize sirens (or their futuristic software equivalent.) If an ambulance pulls up behind an autonomous car on a single-lane road, it will need some mechanism to know it’s supposed to get out of the way (though, theoretically, [flying autonomous vehicles]* would solve a lot of these problems.)

In the meanwhile, Musk said that Tesla is already working on the first half of that problem, by teaching neural net to be able to recognize police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. On Twitter, he said that this capability would be added to the neural net “in the coming months.”

A number of other incremental upgrades are in the works with the ultimate goal of getting Tesla autopilot ready for trans-continental trips within the next few years. If that seems ambitious, remember that Musk previously indicated that Tesla autopilot would be ready for coast-to-coast road trips as early as 2017. Last October, he then conceded that figuring out how to make a version of autopilot that “works well everywhere” was proving to be more elusive than he thought.

Incidentally, turning autopilot into a driver that can capably and safely drive from coast to coast might require teaching it to be a much more aggressive driver. Many early adopters have complained that the feature is too timid on the highway, particularly when driving in heavy traffic. They have suggested a special upgrade to help it be more willing to merge into available lanes in smaller openings.

Related video: Watch Tesla Driver Recharge His Model 3 Without Using a Charger


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