Tesla’s Autopilot 8 Update Could Have Saved Joshua Brown’s Life

Improvements to Tesla's controversial signature feature include adopting Airbus safety technology.

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Autopilot 8—the second generation of Tesla’s semi-Autonomous Driving suite—is two weeks away, and Elon Musk claims the latest round of improvements might have saved Joshua Brown’s life.

“Perfect safety is an impossible goal,” Musk said in a conference call on Sunday, “there won’t ever be zero fatalities. The world is a very big place. It’s about minimizing the probability of death.”

Critics have suggested Autopilot—whose capabilities fall somewhere between what NHTSA calls Level 2 & 3 automation—doesn’t live up to its name, but Musk was confident in both the data underlying Autopilot’s safety record and the promise of version 8’s myriad functional improvements.

“The Models S and the X are by far the safest cars on the road,” said Musk, “by several orders of magnitude. These improvements aren’t about going from bad to good . . . but from good to great.”

The two big changes?

1. Reliance on Radar

Musk has long bristled at the suggestion that Autopilot requires LIDAR, and Version 8 is his answer to critics who claim a single radar and camera are insufficient. Doubling down on Tesla’s current hardware suite, Musk claimed significant improvements in signal processing would allow allow for radar-only braking, even in the absence of matching camera data.

This is huge statement of confidence in a technology no other manufacturer has placed on equal footing with the forward facing cameras that have so far been the dominant sensor in competing systems from Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and others.

Tesla, leveraging their proprietary Fleet Learning technology, believes they can crowdsource sufficient radar data across their installed user base to reduce false positives to a manageable level, which they claim will be 2-3 per year.

Will it work? I asked Musk whether improved radar signal processing would have saved Joshua Brown’s life, and he said...

"Maybe."

What else could he say? Let’s be serious here. Of course improving radar signal processing might have saved Brown’s life. But the key safety improvement here is only partially about the signal processing and totally about the crowdsourced data collection derived from Fleet Learning, which is the hinge upon which Tesla’s (and Autopilot’s) success increasingly swings.

2. Fleet Learning is key

Tesla is currently the only car manufacturer whose cars are fully networked. Every Tesla shares its sensor data and driving history with the Tesla cloud, and—according to Musk today—the lessons are shared back to the community of Tesla owners in real-time.

Tesla’s definition of “real-time” deserves an entire story in itself, especially when traditional manufacturers can only update your car’s software at a dealership, and then often only months or years after delivery. Tesla Fleet Learning? In addition to eliminating false positives by geolocation, buried in today’s blog post was this line:

Curve speed adaptation now uses fleet-learned roadway curvature

In other words, Autopilot 8 will brake/slow down before entering turns, and accelerate out. This is a major, major step forward for ADAS/Autonomous Driving systems, and for safety in general. How many single-car accidents have occurred because of late braking in turns?

This feature alone could have led the call, but there was much more, much of it focused on critics claims that Autopilot 7 was too permissive of sloppy, overconfident users.

What other ground did Musk cover in the call?

Disengagement warnings will be more prominent

As hoped by many and predicted by some, Autopilot’s visual disengagement warnings will become much more prominent before audible warnings kick in, greatly improving safety.

Tesla Adopts Airbus-Like Safety Feature

This is the big one, targeted straight at the Joshua Brown’s of the world. Contrary to popular belief among Tesla Autopilot critics, accidents are more common among expert users than new ones, whom Musk claimed were very “tentative” in the usage. He attributed expert users’ accidents to overconfidence in the system, and cited users who ignore as many as ten warnings over short periods. As a result, Autopilot 8 will include a safety feature similar to that baked into Airbus automation, which in certain scenarios cannot be reengaged until landing. If a Tesla Autopilot user ignores warnings to place their hands on the wheel three times in one hour, Autopilot 8 cannot be reengaged until the car is stopped and placed in Park.

Hands-Off Interval Changes

Questions were raised on today’s call about hands-off intervals, and Musk revealed more than ever before about the seemingly arbitrary rules dictating how long one can actually remove one’s hands from the wheel in Autopilot 8.

“It’s a complicated answer,” he began, which turned out to be true. Under 8mph, there is no limit. Up to 45mph on a straight road, the limit will be five minutes. Musk then described several rules pertaining to intervals at higher speeds, both with and without car(s) ahead, which I wasn’t entirely able to completely understand given limitations on follow-up questions. Musk was very clear: he doesn’t want to impose arbitrary limits on speed, sidestepping suggestions even from Autopilot fans (including myself) that 8’s speeds be geocapped.

Traffic “Cut-Off” Mitigation

The forward-facing camera will now recognize vehicles attempting to cut-off Teslas with Autopilot or Cruise Control engaged, if the encroaching vehicle is using its turn signal indicator.

Autosteer Will Activate To Avoid Collision

If Autopilot 8 detects a collision is highly likely, Autosteer will activate even if Autopilot isn’t engaged. Makes perfect sense in theory, but time will tell whose implementation of this feature is most effective, or not. I have some faith in Tesla’s, if only because of Fleet Learning.

Automatic Braking Will Amplify Driver Braking In Emergencies

Similar to the system in the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Effectiveness can’t be gauged without real-world testing, and comparison is virtually impossible, for now. I can’t wait for NHTSA to come up with meaningful testing of such features.

Highway Interchange Navigation

An enormous practical leap forward in integrating nav systems with Autonomous Driving, Autopilot 8 will navigate exits if the turn signal indicator is engaged, and—in 8.1—on its own if the navigation system is engaged.

I’ll have more analysis of Autopilot 8’s other features in the coming weeks.

Read the full text of Musk’s latest blog post here.

Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.