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People are still dangerously referring to Tesla’s Autopilot as a ‘self-driving’ system

Fortune Magazine had a worrying headline today ‘Tesla’s Self-Driving Tech Is a Danger to Cyclists, Robotics Expert Says‘.

At first glance, I thought it would be about Tesla’s autonomous driving demo since they called it ‘self-driving’, but no – it is about Tesla’s Autopilot, which is obviously not a self-driving system as it currently stands.

They based their report on an article that a Stanford roboticist wrote with an impossibly sensationalist title: ‘Tesla Autopilot Review: Bikers will die‘.

Heather Knight, like Fortune, also seems to misunderstand the capabilities of the Autopilot. She wrote:

“the TESLA Autopilot feature is basically a button to turn the car into autonomous driving mode.”

The impression that Tesla’s Autopilot is a self-driving system seems to have intensified since the company introduced its second-generation Autopilot hardware with the ‘Fully Self-Driving Capability’ feature – even though they made it clear that the feature is not yet enabled.

Hardware that could eventually enable self-driving functions are in all vehicles, but testing the current software build as a “self-driving vehicle” doesn’t make sense.

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.

The danger is more with drivers becoming complacent with the system before it is ready to be completely autonomous – something that Knight seems to understand:

“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 it seems counterintuitive to be worried about people ignoring limitations and yet defining the Autopilot as “a button to turn the car into autonomous driving mode”.

In her review, she claimed that “Autopilot classified ~30% of other cars, and 1% of bicyclists” – a claim that she made purely based on the information displayed on the instrument cluster.

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.

The latest Autopilot software updates made significant improvements to the system on Tesla’s new vehicles and fan update coming next month is supposed to feature a new ‘silky smooth’ control algorithm that should improve it even more.

Nonetheless, until Tesla introduces the ‘Fully Self-driving Capability’, which is not expected until at least the end of the year, the system should still not be referred to as ‘self-driving’.

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