Months after a fatal accident that occurred while the driver had Tesla Motors' Autopilot technology enabled, CEO Elon Musk says the company will release an upgraded version of the semi-autonomous feature. Within the next two weeks, customers who own Model S or Model X vehicles manufactured over the past two years will receive an over-the-air update of their vehicle software to install a more robust version of Autopilot, one that Musk said will deliver improvements in safety that could reduce crashes by more than 50 percent from their current rates.
"I think we're making the Model S and Model X by far the safest cars on the road, not even close," Musk said in a Sunday press call. "I don't think you'll even see a car within a multiple. It's really quite an announcement, and I wish we could have done it earlier, but perfect is the enemy of the good."
While its performance on the roadway remains to be seen, the announcement is a meaningful one in terms of how Autopilot functions. Before, the feature detected obstacles by primarily relying on cameras. Radar provided a backup role that essentially cross-checked information obtained from the camera, but it would not initiate braking based on its own information. That's changing.
Now, camera and radar will have equal roles and responsibilities in object detection. Tesla Motors' engineers have worked the past three to four months to hone the radar information to a point it can be relied upon to detect dense obstacles on the road ahead, whether they be other vehicles, moose, or even alien spaceships, Musk said.
"It does not matter what the object is, it just matters that it is something dense that it should not hit," he said, "whereas a vision system really needs to know what the thing is. That will be the really dramatic improvement."
The billionaire entrepreneur said the rise of radar's importance in the Autopilot system will help the vehicles sense objects in their path regardless of weather conditions and changing light conditions, and that his company has perfected a way to bounce the radar echoes off the pavement and around cars ahead so that radar can now be used to see ahead of other vehicles traveling in front of properly outfitted Teslas. With that knowledge, Tesla says it can reduce false alarms, mitigate the speed in some crashes, and avoid others all together.
Those developments, Musk says, are possible because of the deep-learning algorithms Tesla has honed and because of the company's ability to cull data from across its fleet.
The improvements come following the May 7 death of Joshua Brown, the first person known to be killed in a car with an autonomous feature activated. Brown was driving along a two-lane road in Florida with Autopilot engaged, and neither he nor Autopilot acted when a tractor-trailer crossed the car's path. At the time, Tesla said the contrast of the "brightly lit sky" against the white trailer and the height of the trailer made it difficult to sense.
Asked Sunday if he believed the current advancements would have prevented that accident, Musk said, "We believe it would have."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a preliminary evaluation into the causes of that accident, which occurred in Williston, Florida. Musk said Sunday that Tesla has conferred with NHTSA officials in developing its latest version of the autonomous feature, and that it was met with a positive reaction. A NHTSA spokesperson could not immediately be reached by Car and Driver for comment Sunday.
Tesla has called the Autopilot feature a "beta" technology before, and will continue to do so, though Musk conceded Sunday that it is not "really beta." He defended the term, though, and said the company will continue to market Autopilot as such "with the intent of diminishing people's complacency," in using the system. While drivers can remove their hands from the steering wheel for extended periods of time—the amount of time varies based on speed and lateral direction—those same drivers must acknowledge the responsibility for safe operation remains squarely on their shoulders.
While Musk said he expected the Autopilot developments to significantly improve safety and continue improving over time, he stated his belief that the autonomous technology in Tesla cars—and all others—will never be 100 percent risk-free.
"Perfect safety is really an impossible goal," he said. "It's really about improving the probability of safety. There won't ever be zero fatalities. There will never be zero injuries. The world is a very big place with a huge number of people and huge number of circumstances. It's about minimizing the probability of death, not the illusion of perfect safety."