Google Self-Driving Cars Tweaked for Cyclist Safety

John Lister's picture

Google's self-driving cars now have the ability to recognize hand signals from cyclists. They have also been programmed to err on the side of caution when considering passing a rider.

The cars, which are now being tested on public roads in four states, use a wide range of technologies to safely maneuver the roads. These include cameras, proximity sensors, radar and lasers to detect and recognize objects around the car. The vehicles also use Google's own map database to get information on upcoming intersections and the likely traffic they'll encounter.

One of the big challenges is not detecting other vehicles and people, but rather predicting how they'll behave. Earlier this year a Google self-driving was held to be partially at fault for a collision for the first time when it wrongly assumed a bus approaching from behind would slow down to let it pull out.

Algorithm Tweaked To Deal With Hand Signals

In its latest report, Google discusses how its vehicles are programmed to deal with cyclists. In some ways, bikes are more of a problem for the Google cars to deal with as they can change course much more easily and quickly than a car. (Source:

One part of that programming is for Google's cars to spot hand signals from a cyclist planning to make a turn. The system is set up to remember these signals and continue to take account of them until the cyclist actually turns.

While seemingly obvious to a human driver, the programming had to be set up to take account of the fact that some cyclists make the signal much earlier in advance of the turn than others, and often put their hand back down before they actually turn. That contrasts with drivers who can keep their indicator lights on until after the turn but still be able to use both hands for steering. (Source:

System Will Respect Cyclist Comfort

Google says it's also programmed the cars to make special allowances for cyclists. For example, normally a Google vehicle will consider it safe to overtake another car if there's enough room in the lane (or lanes) and no prospect of the car turning.

However, if a cyclist is in the middle of the lane, Google will now take that as a signal that the rider either plans to make a turn at some point, or considers the lane too narrow to be comfortable riding alongside a car. In that situation, the Google car won't attempt to overtake the bike even if its calculations show there is enough room to do so.

What's Your Opinion?

Do reports such as this from Google reassure you about the safety of such vehicles? Do you think self-driving cars will be commonplace on public roads within the next decade? Could the industry survive the fallout from a serious or even fatal collision?

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Dennis Faas's picture

It's a good thing they added the clause such that: "if a cyclist is in the middle of the lane, Google will now take that as a signal that the rider either plans to make a turn at some point ... [and] the Google car won't attempt to overtake the bike" ... because not everyone uses hand signals. I'm trying to imagine a world 10 years from now and wondering if I'll be seeing these self-driving cars in my neighborhood. Come to think of it, I wonder what the price tag will be.