Sign up for our newsletter


Self-driving cars prove poor at recognising cyclists

Stanford University researchers discover Tesla’s autopilot tech fails to correctly classify people on bikes

Joseph Delves
5 Jun 2017

In an effort to understand how the self-driving cars of the future might interact with cyclists, researchers at Stanford University took a Tesla Model S for a test drive, and the results may not be good news for cyclists.

The researchers found that the car regularly failed to positively identify those getting around by bike on the city's streets.

While the Tesla Model S electric car they tested is not self-driving, it does employ some of the systems that might later be used should the technology, which is currently being trialled across the world, be made legal.

Tesla currently claims that all its vehicles ‘have the hardware needed for full self-driving capability at a safety level substantially greater than that of a human driver.’

However, a member of Stanford’s Centre for Design Research, and an expert on human-robot interaction and automated vehicle interfaces, Dr Heather Knight who tested the car said she found the autopilot’s agnostic behaviour around cyclists ‘frightening.’

The 2016 Model S Tesla they drove features a situational awareness display that helps users understand what the car is ‘seeing.’

It was using this feature that led Dr Knight to her conclusion that the car regularly fails to correctly recognise cyclists. While failing to correctly classify objects is not the same as failing to notice their presence, she nevertheless found the system’s limitations deeply worrying.

‘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!’

Dr Knight explained that she believed Tesla’s labelling the technology as an ‘autopilot’ was potentially misleading.

As it stands Tesla makes clear that close user supervision is required when the car is used in autopilot mode. However, given the car’s ability to perform tasks like changing lanes and velocity automatically Dr Knight raised the concern that users could be lulled into a falsely inflated sense of the car’s capabilities.

Following up on responses to her original blog post she explained, ‘My concern was that treating autopilot as fully autonomous system might be reckless for a person in a car but fatal to a bicyclist, who has a lot less protection.

'Encouraging a balanced mental model of the machine is exactly the goal of this article… Robots in general would benefit from communicating their limitations to people.’

In theory self driving cars are far more likely to avoid collisions with all road users, however the introduction of the technology has been the cause of widespread debate.

This is particularly the case in relation to questions of liability with regards to incidents involving cars on autopilot, along with the ethics of using such systems.

Testing of self-driving cars began in London this February, with the trials involving Nissan’s Leaf electric car being the first on European public roads.

Dr Knights full report is available on Medium.

Video still taken from an autopilot autonomous driving demonstration video for the Tesla Model X

Read more about: