Have you had a self-driving car encounter?

Waymo car driving east on Fremont Avenue in Los Altos.

I typically ride through Los Altos and the nearby hills on the weekend, and invariably I’ll see a self-driving Waymo car on the road. Should I be worried?

I’m worried, given what I know now. However, five years ago when I wrote “Skidders,” a rather short novel about autonomous cars being hijacked, I was all-in for autonomous cars.

I’ve had only one interaction with a Waymo vehicle. It was on a Sunday on Purissima Road in Los Altos Hills at a stop sign for Viscaino Road. The Waymo was on my right. We came to the intersection at the same time. Technically, I was supposed to yield (car on your right rule).

I slowed to a near stop, but noticed the Waymo car wasn’t moving. As I started pedaling, I detected the slightest of jerks, as though the car was starting to move and immediately stopped.

In a driver-controlled car, eye contact will settle who is going to go first, or a wave of the hand. But with an autonomous car that kind of communication is lost.

I figure the driver behind the wheel on this occasion was waiting to see what the car would do on its own.

As I rode away I wondered if I should have stopped and put my foot down. What would the Waymo car do?

Farther along, the Waymo car turned right onto Arastradero Road where there was a flag man controlling traffic. I wondered what would happen if the flag man took down his stop sign for a moment, for whatever reason? What would the autonomous car do?

I have heard that the Waymo cars are extremely cautious, to the point that they irritate some motorists.

I looked around and found one interesting article about autonomous cars and bikes. It was written in December 2016 by Brian Wiedenmeier. He was invited to ride along in a self-driving Uber car.

What he saw bothered him. The car made right-hand turns that would have threatened a cyclist’s safety. Read his article for the details.

The early days of self-driving cars using the streets, without humans inside, are upon us. They’re being used, driverless, by Waymo in Arizona on a very limited basis.

We know what happened with the Uber car that killed a pedestrian in Phoenix. Unfortunately, there will be more similar fatalities. A video on YouTube offers opinions by experts as to why it happened.

Of course, the driver wasn’t paying attention, which didn’t help matters.

All that said, I’m still optimistic that autonomous cars will make our roads safer, but it’s going to take a while. There will be problems, but they can be overcome.

I’d much rather see autonomous cars on the road than distracted or drunk drivers at the wheel.

My biggest concern is that all cars will have to be in autonomous mode for there to be really safe driving, like the airline industry.

If you’ve had encounters with autonomous cars while cycling, let me know here. Do you think the future is bright for autonomous cars and bicycles mixing it up?

One Response to “Have you had a self-driving car encounter?”

  1. Ken W. Says:

    From the vague impression I’m getting from people met, et al…. The folks at Waymo, with their annoyingly cautious autonomous cars, seem to be totally content to research the heck out of things until they get it right and safe. Cruise seems to be the same way. Uber and Tesla… ugh.

    I used to bike to work right around Waymo testing central. There was at least one occasion where I seemed to have caused a car to deadlock because it just stopped in the middle of the street. But I never felt unsafe.

    My big concern is that the brain of an attentive driver is doing a lot of complex reasoning. Is that flash of white that you got a glimpse of between parked cars a plastic bag or is it some kid about to take a jog into traffic? Computers still haven’t solved this. Using just the cameras and not resorting to RADAR and LIDAR, doubly so. But at least it’s worthy research.

    I think I’m mostly worried about half-baked autonomous cars. Things like the idea that all peds and cyclists must carry a transceiver. Or half-baked Tesla autopilots that are just good enough that they lull you into thinking that you can take your eyes off of the road but not quite good enough that if you do, you won’t kill someone.

    I’m also kinda looking forward to when the guttersnipe semi-children with soldering irons get enough understanding of the systems involved to start providing adversarial inputs to the system.

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