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National Safety Month: Can Self-Driving Cars and Cyclists Safely Coexist?

June 11, 2020

Car and Cyclist

Can self-driving cars and cyclists safely coexist?

As more cyclists take to the roads during the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and towns are expanding bike lanes and creating safer opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors. Yet vehicle travel speeds are up across the nation and unsafe driver behavior still puts cyclists at risk.

In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 857 bicyclists were killed in traffic crashes in the United States in 2018. June is National Safety Month and an important time to consider how we can create a safer future for cyclists.

50,000 cyclists are injured every year on American roads.

At Let’s Talk Self-Driving, we believe cyclists bring a unique and important perspective to the self-driving conversation.

Check out our top Q&As about cyclist safety and self-driving technology. 

How do self-driving cars behave around cyclists?

Did you know that fully self-driving technology is built to recognize cyclists, their hand signals and gestures, and even predict what a cyclist might do next? For example, Waymo’s planner can determine when the vehicle should slow down and proactively make room for a cyclist to merge into an open lane of traffic. 

  • Waymo is trained to share the road when cyclists “take the lane,” such as when the road is narrow or there is no bike lane. Waymo also avoids passing aggressively.
  • Cyclists often use their hands to signal a maneuver on the road. Waymo is learning  to recognize hand signals and respond appropriately. 
  • Cyclists can move spontaneously, so Waymo’s prediction system is constantly modeling and trying to predict the different things a cyclist might do next in order to drive safely.

Watch how a Waymo fully-self driving vehicle slows down to allow cyclists to safely merge and move around a vehicle obstructing their path.

Can self-driving cars still see me if I’m riding a tandem bike or have a child seat?

Yes! Bikes come in many shapes and sizes, so machine learning can help fully self-driving cars recognize all of them as cyclists. Waymo’s technology learns from all the variations it has seen,  such as bikes with child seats, tandem bikes, and unicycles, enabling it to better share the road, no matter your choice of ride.

How do self-driving cars test their technology around cyclists?

Waymo’s vehicles have more than 20 million miles of experience driving on public roads and are learning with every mile. Furthermore, engineers run more than 20,000 traffic scenario tests at Waymo’s private test track, many including cyclists. Simulation is particularly useful because it lets the Waymo Driver practice driving with cyclists around without a single vehicle leaving the garage. 

Do self-driving cars see bike lanes and know bike laws? 

Waymo’s internal maps include the locations of bike lanes in each of the zones where Waymo currently operates. Waymo is able to cross-check those internal maps with what it sees through its sensor system.

How could fully self-driving cars put cyclist safety first?

Human drivers can behave unpredictably, move unexpectedly, and speed. In contrast, fully self-driving technology can be programmed to consistently drive cautiously, follow at a safe distance, use turn signals, and obey the speed limit, reducing the chance that a traffic conflict will occur.

For example, the Waymo Driver never drives distracted, drunk, or texts and drives. Its newest sensor suite works to monitor the environment 360-degrees around the vehicle and is designed to respond to objects up to 500 meters away. The Waymo Driver can recognize cyclists, differentiate them from other road users, and tell when a cyclist is coming up behind or beside it. It can then make the most informed driving decision to keep everyone safe.