26 Aug How fixed-gear bikes can confuse Google’s self-driving cars
Earlier this month in Austin, 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 vehicles have driven more than 1.1 million miles in autonomous mode.
But the encounter featured a twist — the cyclist was doing a track stand.
The cyclist recounted the encounter on an online bike forum:
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.
But the track stand, which are generally done only by riders on fixed-gear bikes, quickly became a problem.
The 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. (Watch video of a track stand here.) 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.
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,” wrote the cyclist, “I felt safer dealing with a self-driving car than a human-operated one.”