Will self-driving cars make the roads safer? Cyclists are break up.


SAN FRANCISCO — Cyclist Reed Martin was joyful to share the street with the autonomous autos that roam the streets of this dense and hilly metropolis — till one barreled towards him final summer time as he and his 5-year-old daughter rode their bikes by means of a crosswalk.

“We jumped out of the way, and it just kept going as if we weren’t there,” Martin, 42, wrote in a grievance filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles. It was “scary to our family, it felt like it didn’t see us at all, and there was nothing we could do.”

In San Francisco, the place cyclists already deal with indignant drivers and unpredictable jaywalkers, self-driving cars current a brand new impediment. In latest years, extra of the autos have swarmed into the metropolis, making it a nationwide laboratory for corporations to check and enhance the know-how.

With biking fatalities on the rise — greater than 1,100 on American roads in 2022, in keeping with the most up-to-date federal information autonomous automobile corporations are pitching themselves as a part of the answer. But Bay Area cyclists who’ve firsthand expertise with the futuristic know-how are cautious, in keeping with interviews and a Washington Post evaluation of practically 200 complaints about autonomous autos submitted to the California Department of Motor Vehicles since 2021.

Many bike riders are hopeful a few world of robotic drivers that by no means expertise street rage or get distracted by their telephones. But some resent being guinea pigs for driverless autos that veer into bike lanes, out of the blue cease brief and confuse cyclists making an attempt to navigate round them. In greater than a dozen complaints submitted to the DMV, cyclists describe upsetting close to misses and shut calls — together with Martin’s alarming brush with a Cruise automobile that he reported in August 2023.

Cruise, owned by General Motors, and Waymo, owned by Google mum or dad firm Alphabet, are the two greatest self-driving automobile corporations and have launched taxi-style providers for paying clients. Several smaller gamers, together with Amazon-owned Zoox, are additionally testing in San Francisco and different cities.

Cruise and Waymo say they prioritize bicycle security and that their autos’ security data are higher than human-driven cars.

Still, Cruise is now not allowed to function in California after one in every of its cars rolled over and dragged a pedestrian who had been flung into its path by a human driver. And Waymo, Cruise and Zoox are underneath investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over potential flaws linked to dozens of crashes — an indication of heightened scrutiny as the fledgling trade lays plans to develop nationwide.

Of the practically 200 California DMV complaints analyzed by The Post, about 60 % concerned Cruise autos; the relaxation principally concerned Waymo. About a 3rd describe erratic or reckless driving, whereas one other third doc close to misses with pedestrians. The the rest contain studies of autonomous cars blocking visitors and disobeying street markings or visitors indicators.

“Car was driving erratically and at least twice the speed limit on a residential street. I was nearly hit while riding my bicycle,” mentioned one grievance about an interplay with a Waymo automobile in March 2022. The creator didn’t present their title to the DMV.

Only 17 complaints concerned bicyclists or bike lane disruptions. But interviews with cyclists recommend the DMV complaints signify a fraction of bikers’ destructive interactions with self-driving autos. And whereas most of the complaints describe comparatively minor incidents, they increase questions on company boasts that the cars are safer than human drivers, mentioned Christopher White, government director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition.

Robot cars might in the future make roads safer, White mentioned, “but we don’t yet see the tech fully living up to the promise. … The companies are talking about it as a much safer alternative to people driving. If that’s the promise that they’re making, then they have to live up to it.”

Though California is the nation’s high testing floor for autonomous autos, state regulators have few methods to trace issues past citizen studies — and plenty of interactions are not reported. That leaves officers to rely largely on corporations’ self-reported information, which could be gentle on element.

California regulators allowed Waymo and Cruise to develop in San Francisco final summer time, a second seen as a win for the trade and a step nearer to wider adoption of the know-how. Even as federal regulators dig in, Cruise is beginning to return its fleet to U.S. roads and Waymo has expanded its driverless taxi service in California and Arizona.

Those strikes will expose extra cyclists to autonomous cars. Martin, the San Francisco rider, says he as soon as considered the autos as extra predictable than human drivers. But the crosswalk incident punctured his “utopian idea” of what a future dominated by robotic cars might be.

“There’s this weird sensation where there’s nothing you can do when it’s coming right at you,” Martin mentioned. “You can’t ring your bell. You can’t shout at it. All you can do is quickly get out of the way.”

Many bicycle security advocates help the mission of autonomous autos, optimistic the know-how will reduce accidents and deaths. They are fast to level out the carnage related to human-driven cars: There had been 2,520 collisions in San Francisco involving a minimum of one bicycle owner from 2017 to 2022, in keeping with state information analyzed by native regulation agency Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger.

In these crashes, 10 cyclists died and one other 243 riders had been severely injured, the regulation agency discovered.

Nationally, there have been 1,105 cyclists killed by drivers in 2022, in keeping with NHTSA, the highest on report.

Gee Kin Chou, a 73-year-old San Francisco resident who “bikes everywhere,” is keen for a future with dependable self-driving cars — particularly as he will get older and in the future received’t be capable of hop on his bicycle. To him, the robots are courteous, predictable and a welcome distinction from distracted or drunk human drivers. But he’s additionally seen self-driving cars behave erratically.

In one incident final summer time, which he reported to the DMV, a driverless Cruise handed “uncomfortably” near him, practically grazing his elbow as he biked previous the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. In a second incident, which he didn’t report, a Cruise reduce him off at “full speed” whereas he waited at an intersection.

“I am an advocate for these things,” he mentioned in an interview. “I don’t expect them to be perfect, and they’ll never be perfect. I just want them to be better.”

Cruise just lately started to ease its autonomous cars again onto metropolis streets, beginning with human-supervised autonomous driving in Phoenix and Dallas.

In an announcement, Cruise mentioned security round bicyclists is core to its mission. Spokesperson Hannah Lindow listed protocols the firm developed with the League of American Bicyclists. They embrace Cruise autos being programmed to shift barely of their lanes as a bicycle owner approaches and “regularly” updating the autos’ know-how to acknowledge infrastructure comparable to bike lanes and bike containers.

“Safety is the defining principle for everything we do and continues to guide our progress toward resuming driverless operations,” Lindow mentioned.

Waymo continues working in San Francisco, and final month made its driverless taxi service accessible to anybody who downloads its app. The cars are a fixture in the metropolis, choosing up and dropping off passengers like an Uber or taxi.

Keeping cyclists and pedestrians secure is paramount, mentioned Anne Dorsey, a workers software program engineer at Waymo who oversees the firm’s method to weak street customers. “Anybody who’s not in a big metal box, it’s my job to worry about,” Dorsey mentioned. A frequent bicycle owner, she’s gone her complete grownup life with out proudly owning a automobile.

Video exhibits a Waymo autonomous automobile react to a bicycle owner who seems abruptly in entrance of the automobile because it crosses a busy intersection. (Video: Waymo)

Waymo’s tech has been skilled on greater than 20 million miles of driving, alongside all types of street customers, from a bunch of individuals sporting dinosaur costumes to somebody doing the worm in an intersection, Dorsey mentioned. Its cars use a number of cameras, radar and a laser scanner to view what’s taking place in all instructions as much as three soccer fields away, she mentioned.

Waymo cars have a sensor dome on the roof that may show a message seen from all instructions round the automobile. It at the moment exhibits a graphic to tell different drivers when a automobile is stopping to choose up or drop off a passenger, however the firm is contemplating different methods it might be used to speak with human street customers, Dorsey mentioned.

“As a cyclist or as a pedestrian, I always have this fear with human drivers of ‘Does this person see me?’ ” Dorsey mentioned, however she doesn’t have that concern round Waymo autos. The cars are programmed to offer cyclists ample area and might acknowledge when a rider is a toddler or driving erratically, Dorsey mentioned. The cars warn passengers to search for bikers earlier than opening their doorways, she mentioned.

Despite these measures, a Waymo automobile hit a bicycle owner in February, inflicting non-life-threatening accidents. The biker was driving by means of a four-way cease carefully following a truck when the Waymo struck them, the firm mentioned at the time. Dorsey declined to touch upon the incident, which remains to be underneath investigation by San Francisco police, however mentioned the firm was studying from it.

Meanwhile, the fraction of complaints to the DMV associated to bicycles demonstrates the shaky relationship between self-driving cars and cyclists. In April 2023, a Waymo edged right into a crosswalk, complicated a bicycle owner and inflicting him to crash and fracture his elbow, in keeping with the grievance filed by the bicycle owner.

Then, in August — days after the state accredited an growth of those autos — a Cruise automobile allegedly made a proper flip that reduce off a bicycle owner. The rider tried to cease however then flipped over their bike.

“It clearly didn’t react or see me!” the grievance mentioned.

Even if self-driving cars are confirmed to be safer than human drivers, they need to nonetheless obtain further scrutiny and aren’t the solely solution to make roads safer, a number of cyclists mentioned.

Jane Arc is aware of the worlds of biking and self-driving cars intimately. Today, she’s coaching to turn out to be knowledgeable triathlete. In 2018 and 2019, she labored on Uber’s self-driving automobile staff, growing software program to guard the autos towards hackers. Arc was initially excited to work on the venture, however then an Uber self-driving automobile hit and killed Elaine Herzberg as she pushed a bicycle throughout a street in Tempe, Ariz. Uber later offered off its autonomous driving unit.

“All of us got a wake-up call that this is a real thing that can and will kill people — and that was the cost of building this product,” Arc mentioned.

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