Saturday, December 17, 2016

Seeing What You Can't See

For the past year or so I have been trying to convince you folks that a self-driving autonomous vehicle will be parked in your yard sooner rather than later. So, here’s my latest attempt to convince you that riding down the road in the near future without your hands on the steering wheel is going to be much safer than with your hands on the steering wheel.

Perhaps one of the most annoying and nerve racking experiences we encounter on the highway is going 60 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic following a tractor-trailer that’s blocking our view and we can’t see what’s going on up ahead. Now imagine you’re in this same situation and you’re in an autonomous self-driving car, your hands are not on the steering wheel, and you’re not annoyed or nervous at all. Here’s why.

Tesla Motors is an American automaker that build self-driving autonomous vehicles with “Autopilot”. Their cars are equipped with cameras, radars and other sensors that allows a driver to drive hands free under most open road situations. And it’s the radar that’s really interesting. Tesla’s original Autopilot radar could only see a car in front which it would then render on the instrument cluster screen in the car (see below). However, this radar has recently been ungraded to what Tesla is calling version 8.0.

One of the most impressive features of the 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 and see where the driver potentially can not because the leading vehicle is obstructing the view.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk explains the new technology this way:

“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.”

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