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What's in the Tesla 8.1 software update? (Hint: Autopilot improvements)

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Tesla Autopilot (Image courtesy of Tesla, Inc.)

Tesla Autopilot has had plenty of critics since it rolled out to Model S and Model X vehicles in October 2015 as part of an over-the-air update of the company's 7.0 software.

Many owners cheered the arrival of semi-self-driving features, but safety advocates and more than a few politicians complained that Autopilot--which was still in beta--put motorists, passengers, and pedestrians at risk. Those concerns came to the fore last summer when a Tesla driver was killed while Autopilot was engaged.

Undaunted, Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, have continued to push out Autopilot updates. This week, the automaker published version 8.1 of its software, which includes several features that could make Autopilot even better. As for safer, we'll see.


The updates should be especially welcome to owners of Teslas equipped with Autopilot 2 hardware, which was first installed on vehicles last October. Though the Autopilot 2 hardware offers many more opportunities for autonomous driving, its capabilities haven't been fully exploited yet. Over the course of this year, that will begin to change.

So, enough of the set up. What's in Tesla's 8.1 software update?

Summon available to all: Until now, Autopilot's "Summon" feature--the one that literally allows you to summon your vehicle from a parking spot without actually being in the car--has been limited to owners of vehicles with equipped with the first iteration of Autopilot, Autopilot 1. With this week's update, Tesla vehicles with Autopilot 2 hardware will be able to employ Summon as well.


For the time being, however, Tesla cautions that Summon on Autopilot 2 vehicles is still in beta. You've been warned.

Auto Lane Change: Drivers of Autopilot 1 vehicles have long been able to initiate lane changes by tapping their turn signals. In Autopilot 2 vehicles, Tesla's software handles lane changes without input from drivers. But what happens when you want to change lanes and your Autopilot 2 vehicle doesn't think it's necessary? In such instances, drivers have had to take care of lane changes by hand. With the 8.1 update, drivers of Autopilot 2 vehicles can tell their cars to change lanes by tapping the turn signal.

Autosteer now works at 80 mph: This may be the most noticeable improvement to Autopilot--and one of the most worrisome to critics of the software. Previously, Autosteer had been limited to a top speed of 55 mph. With the 8.1 update, Autosteer will continue to control the vehicle at speeds of up to 80 mph.


That said, the Autosteer improvement won't be felt immediately. Software documentation associated with the update explains that Tesla's onboard computer has to learn to travel faster on roadways. Specifically, in order to function at higher speeds, Autosteer has to be calibrated, "which takes place automatically over several days of driving on well-marked highways."

Tesla owners, have you noticed any other major improvements? If your car is equipped with Autopilot 2, are you excited by the thought of owning a fully self-driving vehicle by the end of this year?

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