Tesla: Autopilot improvements coming

Testing Tesla's handsfree driving
Testing Tesla's handsfree driving

Tesla will roll out "major improvements" to its so-called Autopilot software with new versions of the software that will soon be downloaded to owners' Model S and Model X electric vehicles, CEO Elon Musk said Wednesday on Twitter.

The new operating software for the vehicles, version 8.0, will go into "wide release in a few weeks," Musk tweeted. Details of the improvements will be announced in a blog post that will be published later on Wednesday, Musk said.

Critics have been calling for changes to Autopilot since a series of highly publicized crashes, including one fatal one, involving drivers using the feature.

The new software improvements will involve "advanced processing of radar signals," Musk said. Autopilot's various features rely on a combination of radar and cameras.

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Tesla's Autopilot is a suite of different technologies including automatic lane-keeping assistance, automatic emergency braking, and advanced cruise control which automatically maintains a safe distance behind cars ahead on the highway.

Many other car companies offer these features, but Tesla's system is different in some ways. For instance, Autopilot allows drivers to keep their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time while most other such systems require the driver to at least touch the steering wheel most of the time.

The not-for-profit Consumer Reports magazine has called on Tesla to alter Autopilot so that drivers will have to keep hands on the steering wheel. The magazine also asked that Tesla (TSLA) change the name of Autopilot since the term could be seen to imply a greater degree of capability than the system actually has. Some Tesla employees also expressed concern that the automaker had pushed the technology out too quickly.

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Musk has said that the Autopilot name is appropriate since, on an airplane, a human pilot must still attentively oversee the system just as in the car.

Tesla owner's manuals contain multiple warnings that drivers should always pay close attention while Autopilot is in use and be ready to take over driving at any time. The manual also states that the system is only to be used on limited access highways and not in complex urban driving situations.

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The new software updates will be delivered "over the air" while the vehicles are parked. Owners will not have to visit a service station to get the updates.

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