The recent spate of issues with Tesla’s Autopilot features led some to worry the company would back-off on self-driving technology. However, it appears to be doing quite the opposite. CEO Elon Musk casually mentioned on Twitter that an upcoming update to Autopilot in its cars will enable “full self-driving features.”
Musk didn’t offer more details on what these self-driving features will include, but Tesla vehicles can already stay in a lane, merge, and brake when necessary while driving on the highway. It’s already one of the most capable self-driving systems available to consumers. But it’s still very limited in the grand scheme of what’s possible in vehicle automation, and you can’t work miracles with a software update.
Autonomous driving systems generally fall into one of five levels. Level one is basic automation like lane assistance. Level two means partial automation support for one or more tasks without the driver’s constant interaction — for example, cars that can steer and brake for several seconds on the highway without your hands on the wheel. Level three is where things get interesting. A level three automated vehicle can use advanced sensors to monitor the environment and drive for extended periods while responding to changing conditions. At levels four and five, a car can handle most driving scenarios and can react to danger even if the human driver isn’t paying attention. In the case of level five, the vehicle can handle all driving modes.
That issue is better in latest Autopilot software rolling out now & fully fixed in August update as part of our long-awaited Tesla Version 9. To date, Autopilot resources have rightly focused entirely on safety. With V9, we will begin to enable full self-driving features.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 10, 2018
Tesla cars are currently at level two automation at least, but you could argue for level three as well. An upgrade to Autopilot could mean a strong level three. The vehicle frequently reminds the driver to place their hands on the wheel. The implication is that Tesla could do away with that requirement thanks to better software control, allowing the vehicle to cover more distance without driver intervention. The human driver would still be the “fallback” in case something goes wrong that the system cannot handle. For anything beyond that, a car needs 3D mapping technology like lidar and robust hardware-accelerated machine learning to understand the environment, and Tesla can’t add that in an over-the-air update. The language Musk used (begin to enable) also indicates this will be a mild update — you won’t be taking a road trip without ever touching wheel.
This news comes as Tesla fights the negative PR caused by several high-profile crashes. One accident in late March resulted in the death of a driver who had Autopilot engaged. A recent report from the NTSB says the driver had Autopilot engaged and was not touching the wheel at the time of the accident. The Model X reportedly lost track of its lane and accelerated into a highway barrier, which the vehicle’s radar sensors did not detect.
The enhanced Autopilot features will arrive in late summer as part of the V9 update. This will also make changes to automated lane merging.
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