Innovation

Tesla's Autopilot 8.0: Why Elon Musk says 'perfect safety' is still impossible

Tesla just announced its newest update for Autopilot. In a press conference, Musk addressed fleet learning, safety, and what kinds of objects, exactly, Autopilot 8.0 can detect.

Image: Jasper Juinen, Bloomberg via Getty Images


In what has been viewed as a response to recent criticism of Tesla's Autopilot, which was in use during a fatal accident in May 2016, Elon Musk recently unveiled a new version of the autonomous driving feature: Autopilot 8.0.

The software update, which emphasizes reliance on radars for detection of objects, includes some other big improvements. Here are answers to some questions about the platform.

What does fleet learning do?

The Autopilot update is via software, and no additional sensors are needed. "It's quite complicated to fit that software onto the available computer hardware on the vehicle," said Musk, but he said he is confident Tesla has found the solution.

How? Fleet learning. Tesla has "the geo-coded locations of where false alarms occur," said Musk, "and what that object's shape is that causes the false alarm." This gives information about what's happening at a particular position on a particular street or highway. "If you see a radar object of the following shape, don't worry, it could be a Christmas decoration that somebody put across the street," he said.

Once several cars pass this point, Musk said, the information is geo-coded into the system by fleet learning, which will "create a list of exceptions."

Why radar?

Musk believes Autopilot 8.0 will make "much more effective use of radar," and all Tesla cars with radar will receive the upgrade via over-the-air software. Whereas the previous system was supplementary to the vision system, the new radar will be the primary tool in Autopilot. "We're confident we can use the radar to look beyond the car in front of you by bouncing the radar signal off the road and around the car," Musk said.

SEE: Tesla's Autopilot: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)

The reason radar hadn't been used primarily in the previous version was because of false positives, when the car brakes, but shouldn't. Musk believes these can be eliminated, due to fleet learning. The new system, Musk said, can see through rain, fog, snow, and dust. Particularly, it detects metallic and dense objects, and can "enable the car to initiate braking no matter what the object is," Musk said, "even if it's an alien spaceship. Just as long as it's not large or fluffy."

The braking system, according to Musk, has reduced braking speed by a factor of 5. And it will operate whether or not Autopilot is active—if it is not active, the Tesla will operate in emergency braking mode.

Can Autopilot 8.0 brake for a moose?

"It should work for something like a moose," said Musk. "But a small deer would probably not trigger breaking. You definitely want to brake for an animal like a moose because it's a very big animal."

What does "beta" really mean?

Tesla is "always going through testing processes," said Musk. He added that the "reason they use the word "beta" on Autopilot is to reduce people's comfort level with turning it on. "It's really not beta," said Musk. "It's just that if something is clearly describe as 'beta,' it's less likely you will be complacent if you turn it on."

What if the driver disobeys the warnings?

Musk said that Autopilot 8.0 is designed to prevent drivers from abusing the system. Drivers who do not have their hands on the wheel will get repeated warnings. If the user ignores the audible alarm "more than 3 times in an hour," Musk said, "the driver will have to park the car and restart it in order to enable Autosteer."

How safe is Autopilot 8.0?

Musk said he imagines that the update will "cut the accident rates in more than half. The Model X and S will be by far the safest car on the road," he said.

When asked if these improvements saved Joshua Brown's life, he responded: "We can't be certain, but we believe it would have."

Why? Because Autopilot 8.0 "would see a large metal object cross the road ... this would not be whitelisted situation, and impact probability would be accessed as high, so it would brake."

SEE: Tesla's Master Plan 2.0: AI experts, auto insiders, and Tesla customers weigh in (TechRepublic)

Musk was asked if the new system is "perfectly safe."

No, he responded. "There won't ever be zero fatalities," Musk said. "There won't ever be zero injuries. It's about improving the probability of safety, which is the only thing that's ever possible."

"Perfect safety," Musk said "is an impossible goal."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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