Credit: Tesla

Tesla Will Update Autopilot Software On More Than 2 Million Cars

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Just a few days ago, we did a story about how NTSB and NHTSA have very different views about the Tesla Autopilot technology. NTSB thinks it doesn’t work very well and has publicly chided NHTSA for not using its authority to require changes in how the system is used currently. That story got 178 comments, which indicates a lot of people have strong opinions on the matter. That is quite normal when Tesla and Elon Musk are the topic of conversation, as Elon has gone out of his way lately to make himself a polarizing figure.

But NHTSA must have been quietly working on the issue of Tesla Autopilot and public safety because today, December 13, Tesla announced it is recalling virtually every car it has ever sold in the US to make changes to how the Autopilot system operates. That’s the bad news. The good news is the fix involves an over the air update. The cars affected won’t need to be driven to a service facility for the changes to take effect. People tend to skip over the wonders of over the air updates when they see the word “recall. Force of habit, we suppose. from the bad old days when “recall” and “customer headache” were synonymous.

The Tesla Autopilot Recall

In its official recall notice, Tesla said it will apply to “certain MY 2012-2023 Model S that are equipped with Autosteer and were produced between October 5, 2012, and December 7, 2023, and all MY 2016-2023 Model X vehicles, all MY 2017-2023 Model 3 vehicles, and all MY 2020-2023 Model Y vehicles that are equipped with Autosteer and were produced
through December 7, 2023. The company says all new vehicles produced from December 7, 2023 onward have had the updated software installed at the factory.”

Tesla describes the Autosteer technology as follows:

“Basic Autopilot is a package that includes SAE Level 2 advanced driverassistance features, including Autosteer and Traffic-Aware Cruise Control (TACC), that drivers may choose to engage subject to certain defined operating limitations. Autosteer is an SAE Level 2 advanced driver-assistance feature that, in coordination with the TACC feature, can provide steering, braking and acceleration support to the driver subject to certain limited operating conditions.

“Autosteer is designed and intended for use on controlled-access highways when the feature is not operating in conjunction with the Autosteer on City Streets feature. When Autosteer is engaged, as with all SAE Level 2 advanced driver-assistance features and systems, the driver is the operator of the vehicle. As the vehicle operator, the driver is responsible for the vehicle’s movement with their hands on the steering wheel at all times, remaining attentive to surrounding road conditions, and intervening (e.g., steer, brake, accelerate or apply the stalk) as needed to maintain safe operation.

“When Autosteer is engaged, it uses several controls to monitor that the driver is engaged in continuous and sustained responsibility for the vehicle’s operation as required. If the driver attempts to engage Autosteer when conditions are not met for engagement, the feature will alert the driver it is unavailable through visual and audible alerts, and Autosteer will not engage.

“Likewise, if the driver operates Autosteer in conditions where its functionality may be limited or has become deteriorated due to environmental or other circumstances, the feature may warn the driver with visual and audible alerts, restrict speed, and/or instruct the driver to intervene immediately. In certain circumstances when Autosteer is engaged, the prominence and scope of the feature’s controls may not be sufficient to prevent driver misuse of the SAE Level 2 advanced driver-assistance feature.”

Description of the Safety Risk

Tesla goes on to say in the recall notice:

“In certain circumstances when Autosteer is engaged, if a driver misuses the SAE Level 2 advanced driver-assistance feature such that they fail to maintain continuous and sustained responsibility for vehicle operation and are unprepared to intervene, fail to recognize when the feature is canceled or not engaged, and/or fail to recognize when the feature is operating in situations where its functionality may be limited, there may be an increased risk of a collision.”

Here’s What Tesla Will Do

In the section of the recall notice that describes the remedy Tesla plans to apply to affected cars, the company says:

“At no cost to customers, affected vehicles will receive an over-the-air software remedy, which is expected to begin deploying to certain affected vehicles on or shortly after December 12, 2023, with software version 2023.44.30. Remaining affected vehicles will receive an over-the-air software remedy at a later date.

“The remedy will incorporate additional controls and alerts to those already existing on affected vehicles to further encourage the driver to adhere to their continuous driving responsibility whenever Autosteer is engaged, which includes keeping their hands on the steering wheel and paying attention to the roadway. Depending on vehicle hardware, the additional controls will include, among others, increasing the prominence of visual alerts on the user interface, simplifying engagement and disengagement of Autosteer, additional checks upon engaging Autosteer and while using the feature outside controlled access highways and when approaching traffic controls, and eventual suspension from Autosteer use if the driver repeatedly fails to demonstrate continuous and sustained driving responsibility while the feature is engaged.”

Controversial From Day One

The Autopilot technology has been controversial since it was first introduced, largely because of the name Elon Musk chose for the feature. To some, it has always promised more than it could deliver. To others it was proof of the genius of Musk. Whichever camp you are in, there is little doubt some have abused the technology for their own amusement or to show off for their friends. The most dangerous part of any automobile is the nut behind the wheel and no computer ever made can make up for the full range of human stupidity, more’s the pity.

We must also be careful to distinguish between Autopilot — which is sort of a glorified cruise control — and Full Self Driving, which is far more advanced. Yet in either case, the driver is ultimately responsible for the operation of the automobile at all times.

The argument has always been that Autopilot was too lax because it allowed people to use it in situations it was never intended for. Presumably, the over the air update that is part of the recall will address most of those situations. Tesla says the recall action should be completed for all affected cars by February 10, 2024.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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