Tesla Details New Radar Processing and 3D Mapping At Heart of Massive Autopilot Update Coming With Software 8.0 Update

In keeping with its software-driven development cycle, California company Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TLSA] is constantly refining and improving its range of electric cars via over-the-air software updates designed to add additional functionality to customers cars, improve safety, and address any software bugs.

And as those who follow Tesla closely will know, the company has been hard at work for the past few months building and testing the latest major update to its automotive operating system, Tesla Software 8.0. Due to launch in a few weeks’ time via an OTA pushed to all Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X cars, Tesla has long been promising the update would include major changes and new features for 8.0 in the way in which its semi-autonomous Autopilot driver assistance feature operates, as well as some tighter safety protocols designed to ensure that drivers don’t abuse the system.

Tesla System 8.0 will change the way Autopilot sees the world.

Tesla System 8.0 will change the way Autopilot sees the world.

But yesterday morning in a surprise announcement made on the Tesla Motors Blog, Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed that the Tesla Software 8.0 update won’t just add a few features and safety measures to Autopilot: it will change the very way in which Tesla’s semi-autonomous vehicle technology sees and interacts with the world around it.

That’s because Tesla has finished the development of an all-new code base that allows its cars to make use of the radar sensors built into every Tesla car built after October 2014 as the primary sensor system for Autopilot operation, improving safety and autonomous vehicle capabilities.

Both Tesla Model X and Tesla Model S models will get the update free.

Both Tesla Model X and Tesla Model S models will get the update free.

Replacing the single high-definition camera found behind the driver’s rear view mirror as the primary sensor for Autopilot system, Tesla says its radar system is capable of taking radar snapshots every tenth of a second, which its onboard computer system can then assemble into a 3D model of the world around it. This model not only allows Tesla to see objects that may be not be seen by an optical camera due to weather conditions (such as fog, for example), but also allows it to correctly the location and movement of objects that it previously relied on visual recognition for.

Previously, Tesla’s autopilot system used the radar system to detect mid to long-range objects before then using data from the on-board high-definition video camera to help the car decide what it the object was. But while image recognition is far better than it once was, there’s still some major limitations to using a visible light system to identify objects. The biggest of course being the fact that visible light can easily be obscured by environmental conditions such as heavy rain, snow or fog. And that’s before you account for the effects that sunlight or other lighting can have on the system when light bounces off another object in just the right way.

Radar has similar issues though, Tesla admits: indeed, in Tesla’s blog post about the change in signal processing, Musk acknowledges that radar-based systems can often give false readings and struggles to detect things like wood and painted plastic.

To Work around that problem Musk explains, Tesla developed a far more in-depth radar system that not only builds a 3D model of the world around it by taking ten scans per second but can also see further, allowing it to detect as six times as many radar objects with the same hardware as previous autopilot systems as well as improving the distance at which it can detect objects.

Despite announcing it yesterday, customers won't get the update for another two weeks.

Despite announcing it yesterday, customers won’t get the update for another two weeks.

That still doesn’t solve the issue of false scans when it comes to uneven road. But the solution Tesla says, is to use data collected from the entire Tesla fleet to allow cars to identify things like hump back bridges or changes in elevation without causing the car to falsely identify the road as a hazard to be avoided. Essentially, if multiple cars can drive past (or over) an object that’s been detected by Tesla’s radar system, the location of the object is added to a geocoded whitelist so that other cars know the false positive is not a risk to the car.

Interestingly, while Tesla went to great lengths to call a Sunday afternoon press call to discuss the new software features, Tesla says the new Autopilot routines (and the rest of Software 8.0) won’t be pushed to customers’ cars for another two weeks. The only explanation we can give? Announcing the update over the weekend ensured Tesla’s stocks (NASDAQ:TSLA) were given a little push on Monday morning at market opening, rising from the $194.47 at the close of play on Friday to $198.30 by the end of trading today.


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