Self-driving cars will be hitting the roads in Michigan sooner than you may think. But will they be safe for cyclists? One scientist says the answer may be smart bikes that talk directly to the autonomous vehicles.
Self-Driving Cars Are Hitting Michigan Roads
Self-driving vehicles may seem like science-fiction, but they are closer than you may think. Several auto makers and software companies have brought their autonomous vehicle programs to the University of Michigan’s M-City. The state was the first to develop laws for driverless cars and trucks, and developers are already taking advantage of them.
On July 31, 2017, a convoy including a self-driving Cadillac ATS and Chrysler 300 made an international trip through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, across the Blue Water Bridge, and up to Traverse City. The trip served two functions: (1) to collect data on international border crossings for the engineers working on the cars; and (2) to publicize the signing of a “memorandum of understanding” between Michigan’s Department of Transportation and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation on the development of autonomous vehicles.
Bicycles Stand Between Autonomous Vehicles and Public Consumers
Before auto makers can offer self-driving vehicles for sales, they must be safe in all kinds of driving conditions. One obstacle is predicting bicycle traffic. Nathaniel Fairfield is associate professor at Carnegie Melon University and the principal software engineer for Waymo’s self-driving car project (originally under the control of Google). He calls biking one of the primary challenges for autonomous vehicles.
Associate engineering professor Anthony Rowe, also on the project, explained the challenge to NPR:
"Cars have a very regular pattern with the way they move, whereas when people are riding bicycles they change between either acting like cars on the side of the road. . . . They might switch and become pedestrians and go up on the sidewalks. They tend to move in a slightly more erratic way. It's much harder to predict."
Bicycle commuting is on the rise, particularly in urban and educational areas, like Ann Arbor. That means that Michigan self-driving initiatives will be facing these challenges sooner, rather than later. Car-on-bicycle accidents can cause serious personal injury, or even be fatal at relatively low speeds. So self-driving cars must be able properly predict and react to bicyclists’ riding habits before they hit the streets.
Are Smart Bikes an Answer?
Researchers like Fairfield and Rowe are looking for ways to make it easier for autonomous vehicles to predict bikes’ movements. Rowe’s suggestion is to create a smart bike system that will talk to the self-driving vehicles nearby.
''What we're trying to do is put as much instrumentation on a bike as we can to see if we can predict how it's going to move in the future, so that it could, for example, signal a collision warning system on a car,' he says."
His experimental bike included a GPS antenna, a laser range finder called LIDAR, sensors to detect inertia, a battery, and a computer. Rowe admits that all that equipment makes his bike clumsy. He hopes that over time, it and the data collected, could be combined into a smartphone app. These smart bike apps would communicate with nearby driverless-vehicles and keep cyclists using the apps safe.
With self-driving cars headed to Michigan, preventing bicycle accidents is becoming a high priority for engineers. Before any autonomous vehicles can be sold to the public, companies will need to be sure they are safe for drivers, and cyclists alike.