Elon Musk: New Tesla self-driving upgrade could have avoided crash

Tesla Motors said Sunday that it is going to upgrade its Autopilot semi-self driving system in a way that will make its electric cars more dependent on radar, rather than cameras, and improve its accuracy in being able deal with hazards.

CEO Elon Musk told reporters in a conference call that the improvements likely would have prevented the only fatality attributed to the Autopilot system. In that May accident, an Ohio man driving a Model S on Autopilot in Florida was killed when a truck crossed his path.

Musk painted the new system as a "dramatic improvement," one that could make Teslas in Autopilot mode up to three times safer than vehicles without the system. It shows not only that Tesla is committed to leading when it come to the development of fully self-driving cars, but that it willing to take action after the Florida crash. Musk said he believes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which opened an investigation as a result of crash, will be receptive to the improvements.

The radar-based system will not only be better at recognizing hazards, but will also be able to send its beam through rain, snow and dust and able to bounce its beam under the vehicle in front of it, Musk said. That should help prevent chain-reaction, rear-end accidents. He also said the new system should be accurate enough to stop the car to avoid hitting a large animal, like a moose, though it probably still isn't good enough to prevent a collision with a small deer.

The new system will be beamed wireless to Tesla cars made in the last couple of years in the next two weeks, Musk said. It replaces the previous system, which depended more on cameras in combination with radar to recognize objects.  "It's no longer a supporter actor," Musk said of radar. "Now, it's a star."

He says he's wanted to make the changes for a while, but was always met with excuses.

"I was always told, no, it's not possible, it's not going to work, no one else has made it work, the software is too hard," Musk said. "I really pressed hard on testing those assumptions."

Tesla won't be the only automaker that has the capability of shooting a beam underneath a car ahead. Infiniti, also a pioneer in an early self-driving system, has been touting the capability for years.

Musk cautioned that the improved Autopilot system does not mean "perfect safety," which he says is unachieveable. Drivers still will need to stay attentive and, he noted, if they aren't, if they refuse to put their hands of the wheel and ignore alarms, the car won't stay in Autopilot. The system won't initiate again until the car is restarted.


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