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Tesla’s new radar technology for Autopilot is already saving owners from accidents


With the release of Tesla’s version 8.0 software update in September, the automaker announced a new radar processing technology that was directly pushed over-the-air to all its vehicles equipped with the first generation Autopilot hardware. Tesla worked with its radar supplier, Bosch, to get upgraded drivers and access to raw input from the radar antenna on its Model S and X vehicles in order to build its own processing of the data.

It enabled Tesla to push new safety features and owners are already reporting that the system has helped them avoid accidents.

One of the most impressive features enabled by the new radar processing capacity is the ability for the system to see ahead of the car in front of you and basically track two cars ahead on the road. The radar is able to bounce underneath or around the vehicle in front of the Tesla Model S or X and see where the driver potentially can not because the leading vehicle is obstructing the view.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk explained the technology during the release:

“In fact, an additional level of sophistication – we are confident that 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. We are able to process that echo by using the unique signature of each radar pulse as well as the time of flight of the photon to determine that what we are seeing is in fact an echo in front of the car that’s in front of you.”

Owners can see the difference directly from their instrument cluster where the Autopilot now renders more than one car ahead. Here’s an example before and after v8.0:

Obviously, there are several safety advantages to this technology, and it has apparently already been useful to some owners.

In a post on the Tesla Motors Club forum, a Model S owner in Florida explained how the system managed to engage the automatic emergency braking to avoid a potential accident that he couldn’t see:

“The traffic pace was about 60 mph with moderate to heavy traffic. I was driving in the far right lane with Autopilot engaged and a 2 on the TACC spacing.”

That’s the setting for the following distance for the Autopilot to follow the vehicle in front of the Tesla. He continued:

“I was following a truck which was large enough to obstruct my view of the car ahead. But I did note that AP [Autopilot] was registering the car in front of my lead car just fine despite me not having a view. Suddenly, full emergency braking was activated on my car, which startled me because the lead car was still moving at a normal speed and I could not detect a problem. A split second later the car directly in front of me veered into the shoulder to avoid hitting the car in front of him which had stopped abruptly for road debris. The AP [Autopilot] in my car managed to brake even before the car in front of me acted and was able to come to a full stop with a decent amount of room between me and what was the second car ahead of me. The original lead car was now stuck on the side of the road.”

He credited Tesla for “saving” him:

“This scenario perfectly demonstrated how the new AP car tracking system [under 8.0] works to make things safer. If I was driving manually, it is unlikely that I would have been able to stop in time, since I could not see the car that had stopped. The car reacted well before the car ahead of me reacted and that made the difference between a crash and a hard stop. Strong work Telsa, thanks for saving me.”

Interestingly, another very similar situation in a Tesla Model X was caught on a dashcam last week – though this time it originated from a dangerous attempt at taking a highway exit rather than debris on the road.

The Model X wasn’t following the vehicle close enough to warrant an automatic emergency braking, but the collision warning, which is clearly audible in the video, caught the potential accident quickly and helped the driver’s reaction time.

In this case, the driver didn’t even activate the Autopilot, but the system is always on for safety even when not active and the driver also credited the system’s warning for helping “avoid a potentially serious accident”.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced earlier this year that they brokered a historic deal that will see virtually all new cars in the US equipped with automatic emergency braking (AEB) by 2022. We are starting to see why, though it’s important to keep in mind that all AEB systems are not created equal.

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