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Tesla's Musk says Autopilot update would have prevented fatal crash

The executive says a planned update would have stopped an Autopilot-controlled car crashing on the highway.

Tesla Motors

Tesla co-chief executive Elon Musk says that a future, planned update to the semi-autonomous Autopilot system would have prevented a fatal crash this year.

Musk said on Sunday in a Q&A that Autopilot will be updated over-the-air within the next week or so to improve driver safety, and will include elements such as new limits on hands-off driving and a way to turn off the system should drivers fail to respond to warnings to take back control of an Autopilot-controlled vehicle.

As reported by the Reuters news agency, the chief executive said Autopilot 8.0 will rely more heavily on vehicle radar systems to gain a better sense of obstacles and will be a "dramatic improvement" over semi-autonomous controls which currently rely on software and cameras.

On May 7, Joshua Brown, owner of a Tesla Model S, collided with the back of a vehicle in Florida while using the Autopilot system. The tractor trailer drove across the highway but no brake was applied, and so the Tesla vehicle passed under the trailer, causing a crash and killing the driver.

Musk says that it was "very likely" that the latest version of Autopilot would have prevented the death, but also reiterated that the system does not represent "perfect safety."

"Perfect safety is really an impossible goal," Musk said. "It's about improving the probability of safety. There won't ever be zero fatalities, there won't ever be zero injuries."

Since the fatal accident, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been investigating the automaker, claiming that the incident "called for an examination of the design and performance of any driving aids in use at the time of the crash."

See also: Tesla's master plan: Pickup trucks, Autopilot push, solar tech

Musk confirmed major updates to the Autopilot software in August, but has denied responsibility for any crashes or fatalities caused by using the software as drivers should not treat the system as a driving replacement -- and rather, should remain in control of their vehicles at all times.

However, by updating the software over-the-air and issuing additional safety warnings, Tesla may have circumvented a recall, which the NHTSA could force should the US agency believe the software is truly a threat to consumer safety.

However, despite the safety warnings, some drivers -- such as a man who suffered heart problems and allowed Autopilot to drive him to a hospital when he was incapable -- still act irresponsibly and place other drivers at risk.

In related news, Tesla managed to gain regulatory approval in August to buy renewable energy supplier SolarCity in a deal worth $2.6 billion.

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