Last night I was cycling home from work. At one point I needed to make a left-hand turn across a 4-lane road with no turn lane, so in preparation for doing so I took the right lane when there was no traffic in it, about 1/2 mile before the turn. My normal plan is to continue in the right lane until there is light traffic in the left lane, at which point I signal, switch into the left lane, and slow or stop until it's safe to cross the two oncoming traffic lanes.
This time it was different though. As I got closer to the turn, I noticed some headlights coming up behind me rapidly. The road is 30mph but this person was coming up much faster than that. I would say it was going at least 50, maybe even 60mph, judging by how fast it approached me. I got scared and started thinking about veering into the gutter, not sure if this person even saw me (which they should have, I had just changed my rear light batteries the day before, and at the current level of charge I should be visible for almost a whole mile still). I guess they eventually did manage to see me, because they finally slowed down and then sat on my tail until they could merge into the left lane. When they did that they layed on the horn as they sped by me. I turned to look and saw it was some blonde driving a gigantic SUV, frantically doing something on a cell phone with her right hand and holding the horn with her left.
I was annoyed. I rarely give drivers a one-fingered salute, but last night I was feeling generous and gave her two. I just couldn't believe how selfish someone has to be to become that annoyed that my presence wouldn't allow her to go way past the speed limit, passing people on the right, while texting or whatever the hell she was doing with the phone.
I have no doubt that we all have stories like this. Something like this happens to me several times a week, where a driver expresses anger that I am cycling on the road. Now, since I am not a mind-reader, I cannot claim to know why they are annoyed at us with certainty. But judging from comments I have heard from colleagues and opinions voiced on many internet forums, universally they seem to be annoyed because we subtracted several seconds from their day by having to force them to pay more attention to the road and slow down to go around us.
As a software developer, over my career I have witnessed a trend towards automating virtually anything that humans can do that doesn't require creativity. Back when I was in college I wrote a paper on how eventually cars will become automated and controlled with software so that people no longer have to drive them. It's not a far-fetched idea; after all, almost all airplanes are mostly automated now. The Space Shuttle launch and landing are also both completely automated, with the exception of a single man-controlled operation during landing (a human must lower the landing gear; since the landing gear on the shuttle cannot be retracted, if they were lowered too early the shuttle would burn up, and thus they decided it was too difficult a task to trust to 1970's automation). Many science-fiction novels and movies often display this concept as well.
But it always seemed like a far-off idea that may not happen in our lifetimes... or is it?
This is earth-shattering in my opinion. Not only for drivers, but for cyclists as well. Since most drivers are annoyed that we slowed them down slightly, and in my experience it's usually their own fault for not paying enough attention in the first place, it seems to me that if there's an automated car that handles the driving for them, then the majority of drivers complaints about cyclists can become completely nullified.Once a secret project, Google's autonomous vehicles are now out in the open, quite literally, with the company test-driving them on public roads and, on one occasion, even inviting people to ride inside one of the robot cars as it raced around a closed course.
Google's fleet of robotic Toyota Priuses has now logged more than 190,000 miles (about 300,000 kilometers), driving in city traffic, busy highways, and mountainous roads with only occasional human intervention. The project is still far from becoming commercially viable, but Google has set up a demonstration system on its campus, using driverless golf carts, which points to how the technology could change transportation even in the near future.
Think about it; a car that doesn't get confused and knows exactly how to react when there's a cyclist on the road. The best part is that the people in the car probably won't care in the least; they'll be busy texting or watching TV or whatever the hell it is that people want to do in cars if they don't have to actually pay attention to the road anymore.
Does anyone else think that as we transition towards automated cars, a new era of driver/cyclist cooperation will be unleashed? How far off is it? 5 years? 10?
Is there an active part we can play in the development of these systems? Should we attempt to contact Google and form some sort of advocacy group to let them know that they should take road cyclists dead serious in their software? They showed the software recognizing a cyclist in the video in that link, and they said that they've driven these cars thousands of miles through San Francisco, where there's lots of cyclist activity already, so maybe they already know exactly how to work with road cyclists?
I'm excited. I look forward to the day when "I didn't see him" and "I was texting" are phrases that no longer terrify the cycling community.