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Why Can’t Driverless Cars Figure Out How to Deal With Cyclists?


As we begin to see more driverless cars being deployed and tested on roads around the Bay Area, there has been a lot of conversation about the safety benefits and traffic-improving features these new vehicles can provide.

However, driverless cars seem to have one particular blind spot that they just can’t shake: cyclists.

Cyclists have begun to report interesting standoffs with these automated cars, including one story of a cyclist waiting at a stop sign next to a car that just couldn’t figure out how to cross the intersection at the same time as a cyclist.

The cyclist reported on a forum:

“A Google self-driving Lexus has been in my neighborhood for the last couple of weeks doing some road testing. Near the end of my ride today, 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 [right-of-way]. 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.

We repeated this little dance for about 2 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, I guess trying to modify some code to ‘teach’ the car something about how to deal with the situation.”

According to an article on Cycling Weekly, the makers of these cars are well aware of their inability to cope with cyclists (and to a certain extent, pedestrians as well).

In fact, the CEO of Renault, Carlos Ghosn, is quoted as saying: ““One of the biggest problems is people with bicycles. The car is confused by them because from time-to-time they behave like pedestrians and from time-to-time they behave like cars.”

And all of that is true. Cyclists are in a unique category on the road — just like everyone else.

While it may be inconvenient for driverless car creators to take cyclists into account, it’s simply part of their job if they want to create a vehicle that is going to be safe for everyone on the road.

Cyclists move a certain way along the streets — much of which is driven by factors beyond their control like traffic laws, blocked bike lanes, ice, sewer grates, other road hazards, and the natural flow of the traffic around them — and it is the job of driverless car creators to figure out how to move effectively with every member of the road’s population.

Just like the regular car drivers that they hope to replace, driverless cars need to be able to stay aware of every kind of vehicle on the road and react accordingly.

Unfortunately, in the case of this CEO at least, it sounds as though the creators of driverless cars see bicycles as more of an inconvenience than as fellow citizens of the roads they purport to want to make safer.

As if to make this opinion abundantly clear, Renault’s CEO also threw in this little barb during his interview: “[Cyclists] don’t respect any rules usually.”

Needless to say, your average law-abiding cyclist might find plenty of issue with this attitude from a person making decisions about the vehicles who will be sharing the roads with them.

While all car companies seem to be willing to agree that keeping pedestrians safe is a high priority, it seems that cyclists struggle to be seen in the same light. We have all seen pedestrians break the rules plenty of times (crossing the street against a light, for example — who hasn’t done that?) and car companies seem willing to account for that and still want to keep those pedestrians safe.

So what makes cyclists so different? Why can’t we be seen just like any other person these driverless cars want to try to keep safe? Cyclists are just as worth working to understand and keeping safe as every other driver and pedestrian on the road.

If driverless car creators want to make a product that will truly make our roads safer and more efficient, they will have to learn to treat every member of the road’s population fairly.