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Google's Self-Driving Cars Now Understand Cyclists—And Respect Them

Good news for the future of biking: Getting human drivers off the road could make you safer.

Google's Self-Driving Cars Now Understand Cyclists--And Respect Them

[Photo: Flickr user Colville-Andersen]

Google has taught its self-driving cars to recognize cyclists' hand signals and to understand their sometimes unpredictable ways. And thanks to a number of cyclists on Google's engineering team, its cars behave a lot better than the typical American driver when they encounter a vulnerable human on the road.

From Google's June monthly report on its self-driving car project:

Cyclists are fast and agile—sometimes moving as quickly as cars—but that also means that it’s hard for others to anticipate their movements. Our cars recognize cyclists as unique users of the road, and are taught to drive conservatively around them.

The Google car has a whole bunch of neat new behaviors to deploy when it meets a cyclist. It can understand hand signals, so it knows when you're about to swing out into the road to take a left (unless you don't ever make hand signals, but that's your problem). Google has trained the cars on test tracks and found that cyclists often signal far ahead of a turn, so the cars are trained to remember that signal for the next intersection.

Also, the Google car can spot when a parallel-parked car has a door open, and moves out so the cyclist has room to get around the hazard. It also respects cyclists when they take the lane: if you're riding in the middle of the lane, then Google's cars won't try to squeeze past, "even if there’s technically enough space."

This may seem radical, but that's only because car drivers are usually such bullies. A bike has as much right to the road as a car, and you don't (often) see a car try to squeeze past another car in the same lane. Google's car is just treating cyclists as equals.

The cars also see a lot more than a human driver, thanks to their 360-degree cameras that are always looking in every direction, even at night. This helps to avoid the classic "right hook," when a driver fails to spot a cyclist when turning right, and plows directly into the cyclist's path. This is especially common with trucks and might be the most common way for a driver to kill a cyclist.

If you're a regular cyclist, you're probably already on board with the whole self-driving car idea. An autonomous car never texts its friends or loses its temper. And now the cars treat you with respect, prioritizing your right to live over their need to get to the dry cleaner 10 seconds faster earlier. It sounds like heaven.

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