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Tesla upgrades Autopilot system with new radar technology

Tesla's Autopilot 8.0 with upgraded warning system to be available within next couple of weeks Photograph: (AFP)

WION San Francisco/Washington Sep 12, 2016, 03.57 AM (IST)

Electric carmaker Tesla Motors announced on Sunday that it would be updating its autopilot system with new radar technology that would give its luxury cars a better sense of when to break, enabling them to circumvent obstacles.

Chief Executive Elon Musk said that the "over the air" software update would be available within the next couple of weeks. 

The upgrade of the semi-autonomous driving system will temporarily prevent drivers from using the system if they do not respond to audible warnings to take back control of the car. 

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

New restrictions of Autopilot 8.0 came after widespread concerns that the system lulled users into a false sense of security through its "hands-off" driving capability. 

The system, which was introduced in October, has been the focus of intense scrutiny since July after the death of a Tesla Model S driver, Joshua Brown, while using the technology.

Musk said it was "very likely" the improved Autopilot would have prevented the death of Brown, whose car rammed into the trailer of a truck in Florida. But he cautioned that the update "doesn't mean perfect safety."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been investigating Tesla's Autopilot system since June because of the fatal accident. 

The agency had been briefed on the changes by Tesla and would review them, spokesman Bryan Thomas said. He declined to offer an update on the Tesla investigation.

The new upgrades in Autopilot 8.0 

The revised system will sound warnings if drivers take their hands off the wheel for more than a minute at speeds above 45 miles per hour when there is no vehicle ahead, Musk said.

The warning will sound after the driver’s hands are off the wheel for more than three minutes when the Tesla is following another car at speeds above 45 mph. The dashboard also will flash a pulsing light.

If the driver ignores three audible warnings in an hour, the system will temporarily shut off until the car was parked, Musk said, adding that advanced users of autopilot are the most likely to ignore these warnings.

Concerns over safety

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

The radar technology easily sees through fog, dust rain or snow. "It should work for something like a moose, because a moose is quite a big mass, but it may not work for something like a small deer," Musk said.

Another challenge is preventing 'false positives'. For instance, a car might think an overhead highway sign is an obstacle to be avoided.

Musk is confident that using radar and fleet learning - rather than relying on cameras alone - will solve the problem. "Anything metallic or dense, the radar system we're confident will be able to detect that and initiate a braking event," he says.

(WION with inputs from agencies)

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