Roboticist Says That With Tesla’s Autopilot, “Bikers Will Die”

©. Electrek/ Autopilot detects cyclists

Tesla’s so-called Autopilot is confusing. According to Mathew Ingram of Fortune, Tesla makes clear that it is not autonomous and that drivers should keep their hands on the wheel and pay attention to their surroundings. Repeat, it’s not autonomous.

Roboticist Heather Knight tried out the Tesla Autopilot and wrote a Medium post with a dramatic and aggressive title: Tesla Autopilot Review: Bikers will die. As a cyclist, that certainly got my attention. She thinks it's autonomous (that is her job) and describes the Autopilot as “basically a button to turn the car into autonomous driving mode.” She writes:

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....I’d estimate that Autopilot classified ~30% of other cars, and 1% of bicyclists. 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!

She concludes: “do not treat this system as a prime time autonomous car. If you forget that... bikers will die.”

On Electrek, Fred Lampert complains about a number of issues in Heather’s post, the main one being that the Tesla is not autonomous. He writes:

Under its latest version, Tesla’s Autopilot is still a level 2 driving system and it still requires the complete attention of the driver. Therefore, it’s not clear how someone can make the claim that ‘bikers will die’ because of the system since drivers are still completely responsible for avoiding accidents, including making sure not to hit bikers.

But we know that people are not giving the road full attention. They are reading books and watching movies and proudly posting pictures of it. Lampert also disputes that it cannot detect cyclists; he continues:

Even though Tesla’s Autopilot system is currently primarily for highway use, it is capable of detecting cyclists (as pictured above), but like any other situation with Autopilot, drivers should keep their hands on the wheel and be ready to take over.

Hence my confusion. It is not autonomous and you have to keep your hands on the wheel because it might not see cyclists but it can see cyclists. Or perhaps the real problem is the one raised in comments:

“As long as cyclists continue their reckless riding and total lack of respect for the traffic rules, cyclist will die in traffic.”

Lambert notes: "The danger is more with drivers becoming complacent with the system before it is ready to be completely autonomous". I noted in an earlier post that the latest upgrade to the Autopilot would beep signals if you did not touch the wheel regularly. "With the software update, drivers who ignore the warnings often enough to receive three audible warnings will see the Autopilot system disabled until they bring the car to a halt and put it in park."

But I do wonder if that is really enough. I really wonder if Tesla is serious about this, and more importantly, if drivers can be trusted with it. In the meantime, cyclists now have another thing to worry about.