Tesla Autopilot Could Be Dangerous to Bike Riders

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A robotics expert has just published a paper titled “Tesla Autopilot Review: Bikers Will Die.” The title is sensational. The conclusions may not be. They are based on a study of how the Autopilot system on a Tesla Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA) vehicle interacts with bicycles. The research is disturbing.

Heather Knight is the author of the study. She is a self-described “Social Roboticist” who has done work at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She tested the Tesla Autopilot system, and for the most part gave it positive reviews. However, her evaluation of the car’s ability to track cyclists was troubling:

The purpose of this post is to share my first impressions of this system, particularly regarding its human-machine interfacing. I’m concerned that some will ignore its limitations and put biker lives at risk; we found the Autopilot’s agnostic behavior around bicyclists to be frightening. But as a human-in-the-loop system, this car’s features would impress Iron Man.

Put simply, the car does not “realize” a bike is a small vehicle that is unprotected if hit by a car.

Knight gave the Tesla A rating for its “automated lane switching” and “situational awareness” feature, which “helps the human drivers have a mental model of what the car sees.” She gave the car’s ability to navigate turns a B. She gave a C rating to the functions of the car’s touchscreen and its high-tech cruise control.

Despite the A grade she gave the situational awareness feature, it came with one caveat:

Not being able to classify objects doesn’t mean the tesla doesn’t see that something is there, but given the lives at stake, we recommend that people NEVER USE TESLA AUTOPILOT AROUND BICYCLISTS!

Tesla’s Autopilot feature has been criticized before, as have driver assistance features on other advanced tech cars made, or being tested by many manufacturers. Among the reasons are the amount of training it takes to understand and use self-driving features, the level of software that has to be installed in a car and then updated, the fact that the systems work poorly in some weather conditions like heavy rain, and, as the Auto Insurance Center has pointed out, maneuvering around major hazards can challenge even advance versions.

The Autopilot system has been the subject of a federal investigation since regulators revealed in June 2016 that the driver of a Tesla Model S sedan, Joshua Brown, was killed the previous month when his vehicle crashed into a tractor-trailer in Florida, the first death associated with Tesla’s Autopilot program.

The Autopilot feature was engaged at the time, Tesla has said, but neither the automatic braking system nor the driver applied the brakes before the car slammed into the trailer at 65 miles an hour.

To date, there are no known deaths of bicyclists associated with the Tesla Autopilot program.

The autonomous driving features of new cars, also called self-driving features, are many years from being able to allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel and ignore the things around their cars. In the meantime, one critic has sounded an alarm, loudly.