It’s not enough for autonomous cars to only avoid other vehicles and pedestrians. Google’s self-driving car team is now making sure its autonomous Lexus SUVs and custom-built prototype cars can also interpret cyclists’ intentions.
In its latest monthly update on the progress of its autonomous vehicles, Google said it has taught its software to recognize the hand signals many riders make when planning to turn. The system also watches riders’ movements to predict what they might do going forward; Google says the cars even “remember” if a biker made a hand motion far before an intersection “so it can better anticipate a rider’s turn down the road.”
In other situations, the Google car will be even more polite than real human drivers. If the car’s sensors detect that a cyclist is going to pass a parked vehicle that has its door open, the autonomous car gives the rider more leeway. And if Google cars want to pass a cyclist, they’re programmed to give “ample buffer room.”
As if that’s not enough, Google has made sure to test its cars with a variety of different bikes, including tandems and unicycles.
It’s an important safety feature for autonomous cars given that, according to the National Highway Traffics Safety Administration, 726 cyclists were killed and nearly 50,000 injured on American roads in 2014. Google also notes that several engineers on the self-driving car team are “avid” cyclists who no doubt have a vested interest in this research.
As of the end of June, Google said it had 58 test cars on roads around the country, with the company’s fleet racking up a cumulative total of 1.7 million miles driven in autonomous mode since 2009.