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Friday, August 28, 2015

Fixed Gear Bicycles Vs Google's Self Driving Car

Earlier this month in Austin, Texas, a cyclist and a Google self-driving car met at a four-way stop. This likely wasn’t the first time a Google self-driving vehicle has encountered a cyclist at a four-way stop. The company’s multitude of automated vehicles have driven more than 1.1 million miles in autonomous mode.
But the encounter featured a twist - the cyclist was on a fixed gear bicycle and doing a track stand. In a track stand, a rider on a fixed-gear bike may shift ever so slightly forward and back in an effort to maintain balance, like in the video below:


The fixed gear enthusiast recounted the encounter with the Google Self Driving Car on an online forum for cyclists:

"The car got to the stop line a fraction of a second before I did, so it had the [right of way]. I did a track-stand and waited for it to continue on through."

Google's self-driving cars are notoriously careful, and tend to brake when anyone else is moving forward into the vehicle’s path. In a track stand, a rider on a fixed-gear bike may shift ever so slightly forward and back in an effort to maintain balance and thus looks like they are in motion. Also, a rider doing a track stand maintains the body position typical of a cyclist in motion, not one that is stopping. For riders of fixed-gear bikes, it can be a fun game to never have to put one’s foot down on the pavement, but instead balance at stop signs and red lights.

While a human driver can easily see a rider doing a track stand isn’t going anywhere, Google’s self-driving car seems to be still be figuring that out.

As the cyclist recalled:

"It apparently detected my presence … 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.

We repeated this little dance for about two full minutes and the car never made it past the middle of the intersection. The two guys inside were laughing and punching stuff into a laptop."

Despite the awkward encounter, the cyclist didn’t leave with a negative impression of self-driving cars.

"The odd thing is, I felt safer dealing with a self-driving car than a human-operated one."

Self-driving cars could actually be a boon for cycling. If self-driving vehicles almost never crash, roads will become immensely more safe and inviting to cyclists. But for now, mastering how to interact with cyclists is a challenge for self-driving vehicles. The fact that the cars err on the side of caution is a very good thing.

A patent Google received this spring detailed how its self-driving cars could identify cyclists and interpret their hand signals. It also mentioned the ability to identify a cyclist by measuring the distance between the pavement and the top of a stopped cyclist’s head.

Of course, until this summer Google’s testing was centered near its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. In July, Google began testing in Austin, home to a lot more hipsters and fixed-gear bikes.

The broader the experiences of self-driving vehicles, the better prepared they will be for real-world driving. The run-in also highlights the long list of rare situations the cars will have to master before they can replace human drivers. After all, what happens when a self-driving car approaches a downtown intersection with multiple cyclists on fixed-gear bikes, and a herd of pedestrians? How will it react? Hopefully with the same level of caution.


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