An 80-year-old cyclist from County Durham has been killed in a collision involving a Tesla car in what may be the first fatality of a bike rider involving a semi-autonomous vehicle.
It's the first time we are aware of a cyclist being killed in a road traffic collision involving a car capable of semi-autonomous operation, certainly in the UK, and we suspect it may be the first such incident anywhere in the world.
It is not clear whether the car was in Autopilot, or semi-autonomous, mode at the time of the fatal crash, but concerns have been raised in the past over the safety of such vehicles, including around cyclists, with a robotics expert warning earlier this year that "bikers will die" as a result of the technology.
Last month we highlighted concerns raised in a review of another car with semi-autonomous operation - the new BMW G32 640iGT - around cyclists on the road.
The collision happened at around 9.20am on the morning of Friday 10 November on the A177 at High Shincliffe, according to Durham Constabulary.
Unconfirmed reports suggest the victim was hit from behind, road.cc understands.
The family of the victim, Fred Heppell from Lanchester, described him as a “devoted husband, wonderful father, grandfather, brother and friend.”
Following the collision, the retired bank manager was taken by air ambulance to James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, where he died on Friday afternoon.
“He had a long and happy retirement, combining his love of cycling with his sense of adventure and travel,” his family said.
“Fred averaged 10,000 miles per year on his bike and with his wife by his side had cycled across America, Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and a host of European countries in his retirement years.
“He was a regular on the North East roads, popping out for an average 60 mile bike ride at least three times each week.”
They added: “He has left a huge void in the lives of so many but we all cherish the time we had with him and the many happy memories he has left with us.”
Police say that the vehicle involved was a blue Tesla S 90D, and are appealing for witnesses to contact them on 101 quoting incident number 90 of 10 November 2017.
The electric vehicle was sold until earlier this year when it was replaced by the Tesla Model S 100D.
According to the listing for a similar, used model being sold on Tesla’s UK website for £78,000, it comes equipped with the company’s Autopilot Hardware 1 with Convenience Features.
Standard features of the Autopilot package include automatic braking and collision avoidance warning, which come as standard, and it can also be upgraded to enable the vehicle to change lane automatically, maintain a constant speed, and self-park.
The availability of such features depends on regulatory approval being given for them in specific markets, but in the UK, as elsewhere, legislation is struggling to keep pace with technological developments.
Last year, the Department for Transport held a consultation with a view to establishing the future legal framework relating to autonomous vehicles and advanced driver assistance systems
There have been several cases of collisions or near-crashes involving Tesla vehicles when Autopilot has been engaged, including one in which a motorist in Florida was killed when he crashed into the trailer of a lorry at 70 miles an hour.
An official inquiry found that he had ignored seven audible warnings, and six visual ones on the car’s dashboard, to keep his hands on the steering wheel.
In May this year, a robotics expert from Stanford University in Tesla’s home state of California warned that Autopilot should not be used in the vicinity of cyclists, warning that it would put lives at risk.
Post-doctoral researcher Heather Knight wrote that she “found the Autopilot’s agnostic behaviour around bicyclists to be frightening.”
In a review posted to Medium, she said: “I’d estimate that Autopilot classified ~30 per cent of other cars, and 1 per cent 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 concluded her review by saying: “Do not treat this system as a prime time autonomous car. If you forget that … bikers will die.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.