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Tesla’s Autopilot Tech Has Made Its Cars 40% Safer

Jan 19, 2017

The six-month federal investigation into a fatal accident involving a Tesla using its semi-autonomous Autopilot system has done more than exonerate the automaker. It provides the first federal evaluation of Autopilot as well as some insight into how Tesla designed and developed it.

And while these insights are an important validation of Tesla's technology (more on that below), in a way they're already outdated.

As of October, new Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles are equipped with what the company calls Hardware 2—a more robust suite of sensors, cameras, and radar and software that will enable them to (eventually) drive autonomously—without human intervention. The important word here is eventually.

Tesla customers can now order either "Enhanced Autopilot" or "Full Self-Driving Capability," when they buy a new car. Vehicles with this the full self-driving ability will have eight cameras (not the standard four), ultrasonic sensors, radar, and a supercomputer capable of processing data 40 times faster than previously.

The Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system isn't yet active in these new cars. That will change this weekend when an over-the-air software update will bring Autopilot capabilities into the cars. Once this occurs, Tesla vehicles with "Hardware 1" and "Hardware 2" will have the same Autopilot functionality.

Every few months, Tesla will roll out new automated features to the Hardware 2-equipped vehicles as they are validated. Ultimately, and as regulations allow, Tesla vehicles with the "full self-driving package" will be able to take a drive from home to work and find a parking space on its own. Owners can always upgrade to this software package.

Now back to the report.

Tesla's Crash Rate Dropped Nearly 40%

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration focused on four areas as part of its investigation: automatic emergency braking, how drivers interact with Autopilot, data from crash incidents involving Tesla vehicles, and changes the company has made to its systems.

NHTSA didn't find any defects that would require a recall. Instead, the agency found data that supports Tesla CEO Elon Musk's assertions that Autopilot is preventing accidents and even saving lives.

Investigators found that Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40% after Autosteer—one component of the Autopilot system—became available. The investigation analyzed model year 2014 through 2016 Model S and 2016 Model X vehicles equipped with Autopilot. The crash rates compare airbag deployment crashes before and after Autosteer installation.

tesla-autosteer Courtesy of NHTSA 

Musk, was of course, quick to tweet out the positive news.

Autopilot is an advanced driver assistance system that actually includes a number of features such as traffic-aware cruise control (TACC) and Autosteer.

Autosteer uses information from the forward-looking camera, the radar sensor, and the ultrasonic sensors, to detect lane markings as well as the presence of vehicles and objects. The aim is to automatically keep Tesla vehicles within the lane.

Autopilot (And other Automatic Emergency Braking Tech) Has Its Limitations

This might seem obvious. And yet, the confidence in Autopilot by users has caused some to test it beyond its intended capabilities. As Autopilot was rolled out there was no shortage of YouTube videos of owners pushing the system beyond its limits.

The investigation highlights one important limitation on any vehicle with automatic emergency braking, which includes Tesla. Automatic emergency braking systems "are rear-end collision avoidance technologies that are not designed to reliably perform in all crash modes, including crossing path collisions," the report says.

The new Tesla vehicles equipped with Hardware 2 should resolve this weakness because the sensor, radar, and camera-laden cars will have 360-degree view of the world around them.

Tesla Expected Misuse

The federal report says Tesla appears to have anticipated misuse and designed the system around that expectation.

For instance, Tesla's design included a hands-on the steering wheel system for monitoring driver engagement, the report says. Tesla has since added another layer of safety to the system by instituting a "strike out" strategy. Drivers that do not respond to visual cues in the driver monitoring system alerts may lose Autopilot function for the remainder of the drive cycle.

With the rise of autonomy in vehicles, the job of a designer just became more important than ever.

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