Back in October 2015, Tesla pushed a monumental over-the-air (OTA) software update to all Model S cars on the road around the world, turning on active safety features and semi-autonomous driving capabilities in its cars made after October 2014 for the very first time.
Since then, Tesla has constantly refined its autopilot system, pushing regular OTA updates to ensure that customers’ cars have the most current and most refined autopilot experience possible, making good on CEO Elon Musk’s promise that Autopilot capabilities of Tesla cars will just get better and better with time. So far, that continual improvement has included refining standard Autopilot features — auto lane change, auto steer, auto park and auto emergency steering/braking — as well as introduction of new, more advanced features (such as ‘summon’ mode) over time.
But for the latest major revision (Version 8.0) to Tesla’s vehicle operating system, the California company is making two of the largest changes in functionality in autopilot history: highway interchange capabilities and an improved safety algorithm designed to improve autopilot safety and reduce driver error when autopilot mode is engaged.
Highway Interchange first. As Electrek reports, it’s been known for some time thanks to Tesla’s public beta testing of its 8.0 software update that Tesla’s latest system would include functionality designed to make it possible for a Tesla Model S or Model X with Autopilot engaged to exit a freeway under Autopilot operation, handling the off-ramp autonomously. But the website says it has learned that version 8.0 will take that one step further than first thought, making it possible for Tesla drivers to exit one highway at an intersection and join another simply by activating the relevant indicator.
According to Electrek, Tesla’s off-ramp and highway interchange features will engage when a car nears its chosen exit and the driver activates the relevant turn signal, downloading ultra-high precision maps of the intersection and then using its front-facing camera and radar to ensure that the car keeps in lane while responding to other traffic during the maneuver. The maps, collected by Tesla automatically from the millions of miles driven by customer’s cars over the last few years, allows autopilot to not only position the car correctly using visual guidance from its sensors but also replicate correct lane positioning from Model S and Model X cars which have encountered the interchange or off-ramp in question before.
Alongside the addition of off-ramp and highway interchange capabilities, Tesla’s 8.0 update for Model S and Model X cars will include additional safety protocols designed to ensure that drivers remain fully aware and alert while making use of autopilot functions. Following on from the fatal collision earlier this year in which Tesla fan and Model S owner Joshua Brown was killed instantly when his Model S (autopilot activated) plowed into the side of a semi crossing the road in front of his car — as well as a slew of other non-fatal crashes in which drivers have blamed autopilot for causing a collision — the new safety features will make it harder for Tesla owners to hand over complete, unsupervised control of their cars to autopilot.
You see, while Tesla autopilot has been blamed for multiple collisions in the past six months or so, logs from the cars in question suggest that Tesla’s autopilot system was either inactive or had tried to give the driver warning of an impending problem before a collision occurred. The only known exception appears to be the aforementioned fatal collision in which Mr. Brown was believed to have not been paying attention to the road ahead and in which a ‘perfect storm’ of events resulted in the car’s autopilot system misidentifying the side of the truck crossing its path as a road sign rather than a dangerous obstacle.
In other words, while Tesla’s autopilot system is not perfect, the majority of collisions involving autopilot appear to have been caused by driver inaction not system failure or incompetence. Rather than listen to Tesla’s existing warning system, drivers have chosen to ignore them, and failed to act when the autopilot system was asking for a human to take control of the vehicle.
At the moment, Tesla’s autopilot system checks regularly for the tell-tale torque applied to the steering wheel that indicate a human is holding the wheel. If that torque is not detected, the autopilot system starts beeping at the driver and displaying visual warnings instructing them to hold the wheel. If ignored after fifteen seconds, the radio mutes, the car starts to slow down and the car won’t resume its preset speed and route until the driver rectifies the problem. And while that’s one way to ensure driver attention is regained, that cycle can be repeated multiple times on a drive.
The new safety features aim to ensure driver attention is retained at all times, and include a software lock out on autopilot functionality if a driver fails to heed those warnings. Ignore them more than once, and the autopilot system disengages for good, forcing the driver to operate the car manually until the Model S or Model X is stopped and placed in park.
It’s likely that the new features will anger those who have grown too dependent on autopilot and who regularly let their attention wander while the car is being driven using autopilot, but here at Transport Evolved we’re pleased to see Tesla taking the responsible line and take steps to ensure that driver inattention does not lead to abuse of what equates to a very sophisticated driver assistance (not autonomous vehicle) system.
Do you agree? Are you looking forward to the Tesla 8.0 update? Or do you think Tesla is taking your fun away?
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