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Tesla Says Its Update To The Autopilot Feature Would've Prevented A Deadly Crash

The feature is under federal investigation for its role in recent accidents.

Posted on September 11, 2016, at 4:25 p.m. ET


Joshua Brown's Model S after May's fatal crash.

Tesla will issue an update to its Autopilot software in the coming weeks that would have prevented the fatal Model S crash that is under federal investigation, CEO Elon Musk said Sunday.

Musk said that Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assist system, will disengage if drivers ignore warnings to keep their hands on the wheel, and will rely more heavily on radars to trigger the brakes if an oncoming object is detected.

“I do want to emphasize this does not mean perfect safety. Perfect safety is really an impossible goal,” Musk told reporters on a conference call. “It’s really about improving the probability of safety.”

The update to Autopilot comes as the technology is under investigation by two federal agencies to determine whether the feature played a role in two recent crashes, including a deadly accident in Ohio in May.

In that fatal crash, “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” Tesla said. The Model S, traveling at 74 mph with a 65 mph speed limit, hit the trailer and traveled under it before veering off the road, killing driver Joshua Brown.

Increasing the use of radars, alongside the car’s cameras, will help Autopilot detect not only the object directly in front of it, but also whatever is in front of that car, Musk said. To prevent false positives so Teslas on Autopilot don’t brake when they see overhead road signs, for example, the company is building a “geocoded whitelist” of fixed items cars should not stop for.

Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Elon Musk in October 2015.

Tesla has promoted its Autopilot technology as an incremental step toward self-driving cars. When drivers activate it, though, the display warns them to keep their hands on the wheel at all times. But people haven’t always followed that warning: There are plenty of YouTube videos of drivers sitting in Teslas while using Autopilot hands-free.

Musk said the company has noticed that Tesla drivers sometimes ignore as many as 10 warnings to keep their hands on the wheel within an hour. “We really want to avoid that situation,” he said on the conference call.

Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Part of the Autopilot 8.0 software update will address that issue. For Teslas traveling slower than 45 mph while on Autopilot, drivers will be able to spend a maximum of five minutes hands-free before being reminded to keep their hands on the wheel. In Teslas moving faster than 45 mph on Autopilot, drivers will be reminded after one minute if they are not driving behind another vehicle, or three minutes if there is another car ahead. (Musk said the technology’s accuracy improves if the car is following another vehicle, hence the disparity.) Otherwise, the Autosteer system will disengage until the car is parked.

Musk claimed the update would make Tesla vehicles using Autopilot three times safer than other cars.

The update could affect the federal investigations surrounding Autopilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one of the agencies probing the fatal May crash, sometimes closes investigations if it determines a manufacturer has resolved the issue at hand and no further investigation is warranted. Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the NHTSA, said the agency is reviewing information from Tesla about the Autopilot update.

“We do not have an update on the Tesla investigation to share at this time,” he said.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.