Starting this evening, Californian automaker Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] will begin rolling out version 7.0 of its automotive operating system to each and every Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X electric car ever made.
When the software update is pushed to the 60,000 or so Tesla vehicles made since September last year — around two thirds of all Tesla-badged cars ever made — those vehicles will not only get a brand new user interface for their owners to enjoy, but also gain the capability to drive themselves down the road using a software feature Tesla calls ‘Autopilot’ functionality.
If you’re a loyal Tesla fan, you’ll know already that functionality is made possible by the suite of ultrasonic sensors, forward facing camera, forward radar, high-precision GPS and completely redesigned wiring loom and control system fitted to each and every Tesla vehicle manufactured after September 2014.
What you might not know, however, is that Tesla’s highly-anticipated autopilot-ready 7.0 software is only possible thanks to the millions of miles recorded and driven by Tesla Model S owners around the world.
In addition, thanks to the always-on Internet connection present in every Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X, Elon Musk said that the software rollout would also give suitably-equipped cars the capability to learn from one another as they explore the world, a form of machine learning which if successful could change the way we think about connected cars forever.
During a press conference call which ended moments ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduced the new autonomous drive functionality of Software Version 7.0, calling it an interesting and transformative experience for anyone experiencing it for the first time.
But, he noted, the software being rolled out tonight will have its limitations.
“This is autopilot version one, and we think of it as a public beta,” he said to the assembled press. While the forward-facing camera in each autopilot-enabled car can read and recognize road signs on the road ahead, he cautioned that the current iteration of the software being pushed out “does not take into account stop signs or red lights.”
Backed by a team of some 100 hardware engineers and 50 software engineers, Tesla’s autonomous driving program has already covered an impressive number of miles in and around Tesla’s Silicon Valley headquarters and along the major commuter routes linking it to other cities like Los Angeles.
The result? A software algorithm which uses the compliment of sensors it has to ensure autopilot functionality operates in even the toughest of situations. Indeed, Musk detailed, autopilot works best in high-density traffic — exactly the kind of traffic many drivers find stressful.
Alongside the ultrasonic sonar system built in to every car which can detect objects in a 16 foot radius around the car, Musk said that the forward-facing camera can determine where lanes are, where cars are ahead of it, and read information from road signs. A forward facing radar alongside the camera however allows the car to see fast-moving objects that the human eye cannot.
“It gives the car super-human senses,” joked Musk. “It can see through things that people cannot,” he continued, noting that the sensors had little problem with rain, fog, snow or dust. Despite this statement however, we note Musk reiterated later on in the conference call that use of autopilot in inclement weather should be with extreme caution.
As those who have followed autopilot developments from Tesla will note, Tesla’s engineers have for some time struggled with the issue of poor lane markings on roads like California’s famous 405 highway. Tough for even humans to discern, Musk said that Tesla’s autopilot software struggled to differentiate lane markers with skid marks, removed former land markings and badly-maintained road surfaces.
The solution? An autopilot system which can automatically switch between different operating modes to ensure that the car is correctly positioned at all times.
Primarily, the car uses lane recognition to position itself on the road alongside GPS data and an on-board cache of maps. It can also follow the track of other non-autonomous vehicles to ensure it stays in lane when lane markings become tough to see. But the real cherry on Tesla’s autonomous driving cake is the millions of miles collected by Tesla Model S and X drivers to date — even those whose cars aren’t fitted with autonomous driving hardware.
As Musk explained, every Tesla Model S produced has been recording its GPS position and relaying that data back to Tesla HQ, making a highly-detailed map of every road a Tesla has driven on.
Unlike other GPS systems, this information gives a degree of accuracy which allows Tesla to discern discrete lanes in each road, as well as real-world tracks for things such as intersection turns and crossings. As a slide from Tesla’s presentation shows, Tesla has even collected data from parking lots, showing the individual layout of parking spaces and the routes in between them.
Even when the car is out of signal range of an LTE cell tower, Musk said the cars cache recorded GPS data and upload them when they next communicate with Tesla’s servers.
Simply put, the more cars travelling a particular route, the more accurate the data.
It’s this data, relayed to each and every autopilot-enabled Tesla, which makes it possible for Tesla’s cars to drive themselves even when there are no clear road markings, using its suite of ultrasonic, radar and visual sensors to ensure that the car is a safe distance from other vehicles and obstacles at all times but ignoring unclear visual lane position indicators.
Tie in logic which teaches the car to learn from its mistakes — or rather record and learn what happens when the driver reengages manual control and takes over. In Musk’s own words, “Autopilot will become more refined over time.”
With 1.5 million miles being driven by Tesla customers per day, Tesla’s database of accurate mapping information is also getting much more detailed as every day passes. Eventually, Tesla said it may sell that data to other automakers looking to do a similar thing with their own cars. For now however, Tesla claims its map data is far more accurate than even that obtained by Apple or Google.
But while Tesla’s 7.0 software update includes autonomous capabilities for autosteer on the highway, as well as auto lane change and autopark, Musk was careful to reiterate that for now, drivers should remain alert and ready to take over at any point.
“We’re being especially cautious at this early stage,” said Musk. “We’re advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case [something happens]. This software is still at an early stage. Over time there will not be a need to keep your hands on the wheel but in the short term we think it’s important to keep your hands on the wheel.”
“It’s important to exercise great caution at this stage,” he continued.
In order to move beyond that point, Musk said regulators would need to seek evidence that the reliability of autonomous vehicles was excellent and that hands-off operation was as safe as hands on.
For now however, anyone using the software has to agree to any liability associated with engaging the autopilot. Get into a wreck, and the driver at the wheel of the Tesla will be at fault, not Tesla, Musk hinted.
Version 7.0 of Tesla’s operating system will be rolled out to Model S and Model X customers’ cars starting this evening, with autopilot functionality enabled on cars of any customer who has already paid for the $2,500 feature. Those who have yet to pay can activate it (assuming their car was made after September 2014) for the same one-off $2,500 fee, or they can benefit from the active safety features (such as lane departure warning and side collision warning) for no charge.
Those without autopilot-equipped cars will still benefit from other parts of the 7.0 software update, but won’t get the autopilot or safety features.
Outside the U.S.? Musk said that approval from regulators for the software update was still being sought for both European and Asian market vehicles, and that a software update for customers in those markets should be available in about a week’s’ time.
In case you’re interested, we also recorded (and cleaned up) the audio from the conference call to share with you here. Bear in mind that there are significant audio artifacts on this recording due to the poor quality of the original teleconferencing software.
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