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Tesla’s updated self-driving system could have prevented death, says Elon Musk

Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Elon Musk says a new software update to the car’s autopilot system could have prevented a fatal accident that happened last year.

While preliminary reports suggest the driver, Joshua Brown, may have been partly to blame, an investigation also stated that the car’s advanced driver assistance features did not recognize an oncoming vehicle.

Musk has said the updates will roll out in the coming weeks, updates which he says will make the cars much safer. The investigation into the Tesla fatality revealed that Brown had possibly been watching a Harry Potter film at the time of the accident, despite the fact that Musk himself had always said drivers should remain engaged even when using autopilot. Part of this update will ensure drivers are kept engaged in the driving process.

In a conference call Musk told reporters, “Ultimately, this will probably be a threefold improvement in safety. This is not going from bad to good. It’s going from good to, I think, great.”

In a blog post, the Tesla Team explained the update less vaguely than Musk himself, “The most significant upgrade to Autopilot will be the use of more advanced signal processing to create a picture of the world using the onboard radar.”

In the past, the car used a camera and image processing as the primary sensors, and a radar system would then send secondary data. The radar system will now work in tandem with the other sensors, rather than acting as merely a supplement. Prior to this, the radar could not initiate breaking unless the camera had recognized an object first, something that was problematic due to the camera not recognizing certain objects, such as happened in the crash.

Tesla also explained that radar can see past the car ahead, giving the car more time to break if need be. Radar can also see in harsh weather conditions such as rain, fog and snow, said Tesla. When asked if these updates would have saved the life of Joshua Brown, Musk answered in the positive, although he added, “These things cannot be said with absolute certainty.”

Photo credit: Tesla

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