article by Steve Crowe
Google’s self-driving cars are equipped with lasers, cameras, and radar devices to identify objects in every direction up to 200 yards away, relying on software to predict the object’s next move. Yes, the robocars have been rear-ended several times, but Google remains adamant it has yet to be the cause of an accident.
Google’s first concern probably wasn’t the well-being of cyclists, but nonetheless its self-driving cars will keep cyclists safe too. We recently shared the story of Gregg Tatum, an avid rider from Austin, Texas, who confused a Google self-driving cars for nearly two minutes while performing a track-stand at a four-way stop. The two parties eventually figured things out and went on their merry ways, but Tatum said he “actually felt safer dealing with a robotically-operated vehicle than one with a human driver.”
He’s not alone with that sentiment. In fact, the fine folks at Icebike.org put together an in-depth piece about Google’s self-driving cars, including the follow eight reasons why cyclists should love them:
1. Speed Limit
Google’s self-driving cars are programmed to stick to the speed limits in the areas they are being tested. For example, the current cap for the speed limit of a driverless car from the company is 25 MPH. With all cars driving at this speed, some electric bikes would actually be able to beat them silly in a race!
A lot of the accidents that occur between cyclists and vehicles are due to speeding. Nobody seems to understand that speed kills. In addition, speed kills cyclists almost instantaneously because of our lack of external protection. Headgear and pads are not going to be much use when hit sideways by a car barreling through an intersection.
2. Safe Driving Distance
When a Google self-driving car is behind you, the radar sensors on the front bumper are going to identify you almost immediately. As a moving object in front of the car, the processor will immediately force the car to maintain a safe distance behind you.
Gone will be the days when there were cars about 2 inches away from your rear tire, tooting their horns endlessly because they are too impatient to wait for a light to change. The Google self-driving car should be the kind that will wait patiently as you ride along, without any pressure from behind at all. What a peaceful ride that should prove to be.
3. Gesture Sensing
Google’s software for its self-driving cars has been specially adapted to give priority to cyclists. FINALLY, someone pays us more attention than it does to other cars! In fact, upon detecting a cyclist on the road, the car will then watch you for hand signals.
This means that if you are going to make a turn, and you stick your hand out as the law demands, the car will actually slow down so that you can take that turn in peace. This is one thing that will be tremendously useful, in a world where too many people are texting while driving.
The technology behind this is pretty marvelous. Using LIDAR, radar and camera systems, the car will measure the height from the top of your head to the road. This height is compared with the average height of cyclists in the area, and you are then identified as one.
Using the cameras, the self-driving car then identifies parts of your body in such a way that it can tell where your arms and legs are in relation to the road. It looks at everything, including the distance between your hand and your head, and even the angle at which your elbow is bent while riding!
4. Quick Reactions When Bikers Make Mistakes
We all have been through it. Bicycles have been known to fail you at the worst possible times. For example, a chain could snap at the very moment that the lights turn green at an intersection. Even worse, something could get caught in your wheel, forcing you to make an emergency stop.
Some cyclists tend to forget what brake lever connects to a certain wheel. This can lead to someone hitting the front brakes quite hard at speed by mistake, causing them to flip over and hit the dirt hard. We have all been through these types of situations, and they can be fatal on busy city streets.
However, Google’s self-driving cars use technology that has a much faster reaction time than any human could have. This means they will always be sensing your actions and adapting to them. You could flip your bike while riding down the street and still be able to survive, because the self-driving car probably won’t come close to hitting you.
5. Self-driving Cars Aren’t Distracted
This is one of the best things about self-driving cars. Human drivers are notorious for getting distracted by the smallest things. A gorgeous butterfly could distract the more nature-minded among us from our view of the road.
More commonly, drivers are distracted by their electronics. It is very common to see drivers listening to music using earphones, or even texting while driving. These all contribute to a very dangerous road where people are paying less attention to the road than they are to their tech.
When a cyclist crosses these drivers’ paths, we don’t have horns to toot to warn them that we are there. There are perhaps a few cyclists who use a bell, but for the most part, we are silent. This means we could be knocked down very easily by a human driver who happened to be texting his girlfriend at the time.
Google self-driving cars eliminate the risk of that happening by not having a girlfriend. The car uses 3D mapping, radar, and very focused computer processors to make sure that the road is being watched at all times. By eliminating the need for a human driver, cyclists everywhere can finally feel safe on streets populated by texters.
6. No Speeding off When Lights Change
A large amount of vehicle accidents occur because drivers tend to shift into race mode the second the lights at an intersection turn orange. This means they speed out into the open intersection the instant the light switches to green.
If a cyclist were delayed due to slow acceleration or other factors before the light changes, they will almost definitely be left straggling behind. A fast start on the other lane would mean a collision could have a high chance of happening.
The Google self-driving car, however, is programmed to wait 1.5 seconds before starting to move. This may seem like a very small time, but it actually cuts the accident rate by about 80%. You can feel safe about having been too slow to clear an intersection during the green light on your lane.
7. No Blind Spots
Every human has a blind spot in their field of vision. It is how we are made. Our eyeballs have the tiniest of gaps that make one area of our vision blind. This means that a cyclist in this area could be hit, simply because the driver never saw them coming.
Since Google self-driving cars use a 360 degree map, the risk of this happening is all but eliminated. There are no blind spots for a computer. Instead, it will always be able to tell exactly where the vehicles in its surroundings are at all times.
A group of cyclists doing trackstands, which seem to confuse Google self-driving cars.
8. You Can Mess with Self-driving Cars a Little
This isn’t a safety issue. The car’s software has a small bug, which can be exploited by people riding fixies on the streets. We all do the track stand at intersections. To those of you who don’t know what this is, it is a way of staying stopped without keeping your feet on the ground, by moving slightly back and forth to maintain balance.
A cyclist recently had an experience with a google Lexus self-driven car, in which he was doing a track stand at an intersection to allow the car to go, as it had the right of way. However, every time the cyclist made the forward motion, the car would stop. This means that the car is extremely safe, of course, but it also means that it might be okay to have a little fun with one if you are riding a fixie.
To the cyclist, the development of self-driving cars is the best news since aluminum frames. We can all look forward to streets that are infinitely safer in the near future.
Steve Crowe is managing editor of Robotics Trends. Steve has been writing about technology since 2008. He lives in Belchertown, MA with his wife and daughter.
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