Elon Musk never sleeps. So, sometimes I don’t get to rest either – even on Sundays (sigh). Sunday morning the co-founder and CEO at Tesla Motors Inc , got a bunch of us reporters on a conference where he addressed concerns regarding his company’s Autopilot system and its upgrade. The press call took place at 11am PT and was held via Cisco’s Web Event.
Tesla Motors is emerging from a difficult period, littered with headlines that left its Autopilot system under negative connotations. The U.S. luxury car maker saw it fitting to hold a press conference yesterday, in order to clear some looming concerns and offer more details about its improvements to Autopilot.
The big change to Tesla Autopilot
“The real exciting thing is that we are making much more effective use of radar,” the CEO explained. The radar system on Tesla EVs previously worked to supplement the vision system. With the new upgrade, Musk tells the conference that radar is now pushed to the fore, which greatly improves the car’s capacity to detect objects on the road. This allows Tesla’s autonomous system to better identify objects and initiate braking where appropriate.
Getting the radar system to pick up objects as accurately as possible was no light task. Musk admits that the upgrade took a significant effort to put together. However, Autopilot is now better able to analyze obstructions to determine how the car should proceed. The updated system lets the car recognize a greater number of threats and obstructions.
“As long as it’s not large and fluffy,” Musk asserted, stating that such objects would be tricky for Autopilot to recognize. As a road safety feature, the radar system focuses particularly on “anything metallic or anything that is dense.” Autopilot is better able to detect items like these and is particularly good at avoiding them.
Autopilot trumps manual driving
Musk went on to explain the benefits of having the Autopilot enabled as opposed to driving with it off. The CEO told the conference that during instances where Autopilot is not engaged, the car functions in emergency breaking mode. This means that regardless of whether Autopilot is on or off, the car will brake if it is about to collide with a dense obstruction.
“If Autopilot is not activated, it will operate in emergency braking mode,” Musk explains to the conference. “In that case, it is more likely to mitigate your impact speed because if auto steer is not on, it doesn’t know whether the driver is actually going to turn out of the way of the obstacle or not. It will only brake at the very last second,” he added.
On the other hand, “if auto steer is turned on, the car computer knows what its probable path is and whether its actually going to turn in time or not. So it will be a much more comfortable braking experience as opposed to the last minute and in that case we think, most likely, we’ll be able to brake to a complete stop instead of just mitigating impact.
Summing up his thoughts on the matter, Elon Musk reiterated that he believes Tesla EVs work far better with Autopilot turned on as opposed to driving with it off. The conference is told that even if the vision system can’t entirely see the the obstacles around them, the car’s radar can detect their density and determine a course a course of action accordingly. This trumps Autopilot’s earlier reliance on its vision system where it has to actually know what the exactly what the object is order to identity it.
Radar over vision
Using radar also means Telsa EVs can guide themselves in driving poor conditions that pose limited visibility. Whether the car is moving through heavy rain, fog, dust or snow, it can guide itself confidently through the use of radar.
“It could be anything,” the CEO assured, “an alien spaceship, a pile of metal, it does not matter what the object is. It just knows that there is something quite dense its going to hit and it should not hit that. [The radar system] does not need to know what that thing is whereas the vision system would need to know what the thing is.”
No new hardware needed
Musk relayed his pride in the upgrade and pointed out that it will be delivered without the need to add any physical components. The update is entirely software based, making Teslas a lot more efficient at guiding themselves with no new hardware changes.
“It’s a really dramatic improvement in the safety of the vehicle and done entirely via software, so no additional sensors are needed. It’s a lot of software,” admitted the CEO, “and quite a complicated job to set that software up onto the available computer hardware on the vehicle.” This is one of the few problems that Tesla faces with the upgrade. However, Musk is confident in his company’s ability to solve it.
Is Tesla’s Autopilot now 100% safe?
Musk explains that no carmaker can guarantee the complete safety of its drivers. According to him, the update increases Autopilot safety by a huge margin, but 100 percent safety is a huge stretch and, quite frankly, an impossible demand.
The chief exec told the conference that the update aims to greatly reduce the chance of collisions and he believes it does that this has been achieve. Claiming that Autopilot is completely safe to would be a false assurance.
“I do want to emphasize this does not mean perfect safety. Perfect safety is really impossible. It’s really about improving the probability of safety. That’s the only thing that’s really ever possible.” Musk highlights that the company’s Autopilot enhancements aim to limit fatalities and not offer the illusion of perfect safety.
Musk takes hard-hitting questions
The panel was then opened up to the rest of the conference, allowing journalists to ask Musk a few hard-hitting questions. Tim Stevens of Roadshow took the CEO back to his statement about the system’s difficulty in picking up big and fluffy objects. He asked what this went in terms of moose and other large animals.
“It should work with something like a moose,” was Musk’s answer. “A moose is quite a big mass, but it may not work for, say, a small deer. A small deer probably won’t trigger braking but a moose would.” If not, Musk tells the conference that the car’s recognition system can be set to identify large animals.
When asked whether the Autopilot update would have saved Joshua Brown’s life, Musk confirmed. “We believe it would have,” he said.
The CEO was asked whether Tesla’s relationship with Mobileye has diminished but refused to comment. He did, however, confirm that the new Autopilot is developed “in-house”. “This was all done in-house and this is all Tesla software.”
Musk also explained that Tesla is getting a lot of “flack” from every angle, from the pressure of the Model 3, to its performance and merger with SolarCity.