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Tesla Autopilot's Upcoming Shift To Radar Could Have Prevented Fatal Model S Accident, Elon Musk Says

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Tesla Motors will soon release improvements to Autopilot, the company's controversial self-driving technology, that CEO Elon Musk claims could have prevented the fatal crash of a Tesla Model S reported on May 7.

The incident, revealed at the end of June, was the first reported death related to a self-driving car. According to the investigation, the Tesla Model S was traveling along a highway in Autopilot mode, but the system did not see a tractor trailer that was driving across. Because of the white color of the side of the tractor trailer and the bright sky behind it, the Autopilot technology was not able to detect the oncoming vehicle. The occupant of the Tesla Model S, 40-year-old entrepreneur Joshua Brown, died from the crash.

To prevent such an incident from happening again, the most significant upgrade that Tesla Motors will be applying to Version 8 of its software is the usage of more advanced signal processing to shift the focus onto the onboard radar of its electric vehicles.

In the press release announcing the coming update, Tesla Motors said that the radar, which was added to all vehicles of the company in October 2014, was originally meant to be a supplementary sensor to the Autopilot system's primary camera and image processing technology. However, Tesla Motors will now be using radar as the primary control sensor for Autopilot, with the system not requiring the onboard cameras to visually confirm objects detected by radar.

In a conference call, Musk said that he believes the coming upgrades to the Autopilot system could have prevented the accident that claimed the life of Brown. He claimed that with the improved radar system of the technology, Autopilot would be able to see large metal objects across the road and determine if the object does or does not pose a threat.

One of the main challenges of using radars combined with cameras for Autopilot is how to prevent false positives, as a high number of such would lead to an unappealing experience of the vehicle braking too often for the wrong reasons. To address this, Tesla Motors will implement a more detailed point cloud, use that point cloud to determine if an object is moving and therefore a threat to collision, and utilize fleet learning to determine objects that are safe to drive through such as bridges and road signs.

Musk thinks that the Autopilot improvements will significantly increase the safety of passengers, though he added that road accidents will likely not be gone for good.

"Perfect safety is really an impossible goal," Musk said. "There won't ever be zero fatalities, there won't ever be zero injuries."

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