When it comes to the world of autonomous vehicles, Californian software giant Google is the undisputed king of self-driving cars. And with more years of research and development into self-driving vehicles than the majority of auto makers, Google’s fleet of self-driving cars are amassing real-world driving experience at an astonishing rate, covering more miles collectively in a week than many drivers do in their lifetime.
But as Autoblog reports, despite millions of miles of driving experience, Google’s fleet of fully-autonomous Lexus RX450h SUVs and fully-electric low-speed pod-like cars are about to get a software upgrade to make them a little more aggressive to cope with life in the real world. Without it, Google’s cars are simply too nice and law-abiding to cope with the average U.S. city, making them prime targets for queue-cutters, tailgaters, and more unusual road users.
Ultimately, the problem lies in the difference between how you’d drive when taking a driving test and how you’d drive on your everyday commute. Google’s cars are driving like contentious teens who desperately want to prove to the examiner that they’re safe enough to be given a license.
Humans, on the other hand, take risks, get sloppy — and generally screw up.
Think about your morning commute, for example. Did you sneak a lane change in between two cars that would have resulted in a fail on a driving test? Perhaps you took a chance to overtake that one guy who was driving at the posted limit on the Interstate when everyone else was going ten over?
Google’s cars won’t of course be programmed to break laws. They’ll still stick to the limit and obey all traffic signs. But when it comes to four-way stops, stop lights and heavy traffic, Google plans to program its fleet to be a little less perfect and a whole lot more human. With any luck, this should stop Google’s cars being constantly cut up by impatient drivers trying to make up time after getting up late for work, improve traffic flow and ultimately make Google’s autonomous vehicle fleet a little more real-world ready.
We should point out here that the upgrade doesn’t mean Google’s cars will be any less safe. As before, Google’s autonomous vehicles will do everything possible to predict and evade accidents and collisions, continuing its record of not causing an accident while in fully-autonomous mode.
In addition to the upgrade to make its cars more assertive and defensive on the road, Google says it is continuing to evolve its autonomous vehicle algorithms to ensure its fleet can cope with more and more real-world situations. In most cases, that involves a vehicle encountering a new situation — such as a grandmother chasing ducks in her motorized wheelchair — analyzing the data from that encounter, and with help from Google’s autonomous driving software team, developing the correct response for future encounters.
In the case of the crazy woman chasing ducks, Google says the car behaved as it should, identifying and treating the unpredictable behavior from the woman as a road hazard and acting accordingly.
But, it admitted, there’s one thing which is still causing its fleet of autonomous cars a bit of a headache: fixies — or fixed-wheel bicycles.
For those who are unfamiliar with every Hipster’s favorite mode of transport, fixed-wheel bicycles have just a simple chain connecting front and rear sprockets together. With no way to change gear, they also do away with freewheeling hubs, meaning that any movement of pedals is reflected by a movement of the rear wheel and vice-versa.
As a consequence, experienced fixed wheel riders often do what’s known as ‘track stands’ when waiting at stop lights and intersections. Rather than put their feet on the tarmac, riders doing track stands gently rock their bicycles backwards and forwards, allowing their bicycles to wait at a stop light without requiring the riders to unclip their feet from the pedals.
To a human driver, this gentle motion back and forth is easily identified and dealt with — but Google’s self-driving cars interpret the swaying motion of a track-standing fixie rider as a danger that should be avoided at all costs. The result? Upon encountering such a cyclist, the self-driving vehicles stop dead and wait for something to happen — even if they have right of way.
With Google already working on teaching its cars to identify and more appropriately react to these hardcore cyclists, it won’t be long before fixie riders pose no threat to Google’s self-driving fleet.
In the mean time, we’d like to suggest Google stays clear of such fixed-wheel havens as downtown San Francisco, Austin and of course Portland.
Biker’s rights, it seems have the upper hand for now.
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