Google’s self-driving cars are some of the most visible and well-known (and most talked-about) autonomous vehicles on the road. Google’s cars are regularly seen around Mountain View, CA (where Google’s headquarters are located), but they’ve also been spotted all around the US.
In early August, a Google self-driving car and a cyclist had something of a standoff at a four way stop in Austin (perhaps “standoff” is too strong—it actually sounded more like what happens when you and Cal from accounting are walking toward each other down the hallway, both headed to the break room, and you keep cutting each other off, awkwardly stopping and starting, until one of you even more awkwardly asks the other to “dance”). In any case, the Google car was unsure how to navigate the cyclist. The self-driving car erred on the side of extreme caution, and while the situation shows how much father autonomous vehicle development has to come, it also shows how much safer self-driving cars could make the roads for cyclists and pedestrians.
The Incident: Google’s Self-Driving Car vs. a Fixed Gear Bike
The Location: Downtown Austin, TX
For the uninitiated, a fixed-gear bike (also called a fixie) has fewer parts than even the most basic of bicycles, making it lighter. Fixed-gear bikes don’t move unless the rider is pedaling—no coasting for riders of fixies. Riders highlight improved maneuverability and many say they not only have a more controlled, more efficient ride, but that riding a fixed-gear is more fun, too. Fixed gear bikes are common in cities, which means cars must know how to navigate around them. Another unique feature: riders will often do a track stand while stopped, which is described by Joseph Stromberg at Vox as, “a maneuver riders of fixed-gear bikes often do to stand in place without dismounting, which requires turning the front wheel back and forth. This can cause the bike to slightly rock forward and back.”
It’s the rocking back and forth that tripped up Google’s autonomous car. Our cyclist in question described the encounter: “We both stopped at an intersection with 4-way stop signs. The car got to the stop line a fraction of a second before I did, so it had the ROW. I did a track-stand and waited for it to continue on through. It apparently detected my presence (it’s covered in Go-Pros) and stayed stationary for several seconds. it finally began to proceed, but as it did, I rolled forward an inch while still standing. The car immediately stopped. I continued to stand, it continued to stay stopped. Then as it began to move again, I had to rock the bike to maintain balance. It stopped abruptly.” The cyclist says this went on for two minutes, and the car never made it through the intersection. The drivers? The cyclist said they were, “laughing and punching stuff into a laptop.”
Stromberg at Vox felt the encounter, while clearly frustrating for both parties, was actually a net positive. He said, “Engineers will probably be able to teach the cars to distinguish between track stands and real movement fairly easily. But the cars will continue to drive with extreme caution and sensitivity, which is absolutely great news for cyclists and pedestrians.”
Dangerous Roads for Pedestrians and Cyclists
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available), 4,735 pedestrians were killed and an estimated 66,000 were injured by motor vehicle crashes (that’s one pedestrian killed every two hours and one injured every eight minutes). Cyclists don’t fair much better. In the same year, 743 were killed in crashes and 48,000 were injured.
Pedestrian deaths accounted for 14% of all traffic deaths, while cyclist deaths accounted for 2%–that means 16% of people who died (in just one year) from motor vehicle crashes weren’t even behind the wheel of a car. Autonomous cars—which don’t have blind spots, and can look in all directions at once—have the potential to greatly reduce those numbers.
Anyone who regularly bikes on roads has had their fair share of close-calls. Last year, Bill Bone Bike Law reported the ten most dangerous cities for cyclists:
- Orlando/Kissimmee, Florida
- Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Florida
- Jacksonville, Florida
- Miami/Fort Lauderdale/Pompano, Florida
- Riverside/San Bernardino/Ontario, California
- Las Vegas/Paradise, Nevada
- Memphis, Tennessee
- Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale, Arizona
- Houston/Sugar Land/Baytown, Texas
- Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington, Texas
So what will the future look like for cyclists and drivers? Safer, we hope, with autonomous vehicles behind the controls.
Self-Driving Cars: Safer for Drivers as well as Those who Share the Road
Autonomous cars are still in the development stages, certainly. As we’ve discussed, no self-driving vehicle is ready to go completely solo yet (a driver is always alert and ready to take over, if needed). But as Stromberg writes, “When it comes to safety, [self-driving cars] have the potential to outstrip human drivers in every way imaginable. Their algorithms don’t get bored, tired, or angry, and their 360-degree laser sensors mean they don’t have blind spots. Just as importantly, they’re seemingly programmed to always err on the side of excessive caution.”
Google, for its part, is taking pedestrians and cyclists quite seriously—this spring, the company was issued a patent for a program that can interpret the hand signals of cyclists.
And as for our Austin cyclist who had the standoff with a Google self-driving car? The cyclist had had this to say about the encounter: “The odd thing is that … I felt safer dealing with a self-driving car than a human-operated one.”