Tesla to Update Autopilot Self-Driving System After May Fatality

Company CEO believes that the update could have prevented the death

Tesla to Update Autopilot Self-Driving System After May Fatality
Image: Tesla
September 12, 2016

Tesla will soon update its semi-autonomous Autopilot driving system to limit hands-free driving, a safety feature that Tesla CEO Elon Musk believes could have prevented a fatality in May.

The update, which will be issued to vehicles wirelessly within a couple of weeks, will rely mainly on radar to help the luxury electric cars determine their surroundings and when they need to brake.

"We're making much more effective use of radar," said Musk. "It will be a dramatic improvement in the safety of the system done entirely through software."

The new limits on the self-driving feature are being imposed after the company received widespread criticism that Autopilot lulls drivers into a false sense of security. The system will now temporarily shut down if drivers do not respond to audible warnings by taking control of the vehicle.

Scrutiny of the Autopilot feature intensified after a Tesla Model S driver named Joshua Brown was killed on May 7 in a collision with a truck while using the feature. This scrutiny involves not only consumers, but government agencies as well: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been investigating the system since the accident.

NHTSA has been informed of the update by Tesla, according to agency spokesman Bryan Thomas.

Although Musk stated that it was "very likely" that the updated Autopilot would have prevented Brown's death, he cautioned that it still "doesn't mean perfect safety."

"Perfect safety is really an impossible goal," he said. "It's about improving the probability of safety. There won't ever be zero fatalities, there won't ever be zero injuries."

Preventing "false positives" is one of the main problems in using cameras and radar in braking systems. One example provided by The Guardian would be a vehicle detecting an overhead sign and believing that it is instead an obstacle that it needs to avoid.

Musk believes that combining radar and fleet learning rather than relying mainly on cameras in the vehicle would solve the issue.

"Anything metallic or dense, the radar system we're confident will be able to detect that and initiate a braking event," he said.

After it is updated, the Autopilot system will sound warnings if a driver removes his or her hands from the wheel for more than one minute when the vehicle is travelling more than 45 miles per hour and there is no vehicle in front of it. It will issue another warning sound if the driver keeps his or her hands off the wheel for longer than three minutes while travelling more than 45 miles per hour with another vehicle in front, and a pulsing light will also flash from the dashboard. If the driver does not respond to three audible warnings within the span of one hour, the system will temporarily shut down until the car parks.