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Bicyclists and AI Autonomous Cars


Bicyclists and AI Autonomous Cars 1
AI self-driving need to graduate awareness of bicyclists from the zone of edge problem to maintain the safety of bike riders. (GETTY IMAGES)

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

Are you living in Biketown or in Bikelash?

Let’s start with Biketown, which is any locale that welcomes bicycling.

Bicyclists, some would say, are wonderful because they are green, meaning they are good for society by using a non-polluting form of transportation.

Many cities have opted to increase the number of bike lanes that they provide.

Some cities even have specially painted traditional car lanes to indicate that those lanes are intended for bicyclists to ride in.

A few cities have even removed selected car lanes entirely, going on a road diet (that’s the “in” term), and opted to transform those lanes into bicycle lanes, plus sometimes also adding a bit of greenery such as immovable planters.

Dockless bike-sharing services are now emerging as one of the hottest trends.

The concept is that you can rent a bike, at any time, at any location, by simply seeing one within reach and being able to electronically unlock it, ride it wherever you want to go, and then park it wherever you want (the bike then electronically locks again and waits for another rider to rent it). No more having to keep a bike in a bike rack with a heavy steel lock on it. No more needing to own your bike. No more needing to go to a particular location where bikes are housed. Instead, bikes are like free ranging cattle.  Via a mobile app, you can look to see where a bike is parked and then go there to start your ride.

It’s considered the “last mile” of ridesharing (you use a car-based rideshare to get near to a desired location, and then bike the remainder of the way rather than walking).

It’s not all roses though in the biking world.

Bikelash Exists Too

Let’s consider Bikelash, consisting of those that have serious qualms about bicyclists and bike riding.

According to published statistics, there are an estimated 45,000 bicyclists injured each year in reported roadway accidents (that’s the reported number, while the true full number including unreported incidents is likely much higher).

The number of bicyclists deaths seems to range anywhere from 800 to 1,000 per year, and some numbers suggest that it really is more like 3,000-4,000 if you also include severe injuries that leave the bicyclist maimed for life.

In short, anytime you get onto a bike, you’ve just increased your odds of injury or possibly death. Don’t want to be sour on bike riding, and I’m just trying to emphasize that it’s a dangerous “sport” and we often take it for granted.

As a quick note, the federal government prefers to call them pedal cyclists, which consists of riders of two wheeled non-motorized vehicles, tricycles, and unicycles that are all powered solely by pedals. I hope it’s OK with you if I just refer to them overall as bicyclists.

Here are some fascinating numbers:

  • 70% of bicyclist deaths occurred in urban areas versus rural areas (makes sense, density of traffic plays a role).
  • 61% of the bicyclist deaths occurred at non-intersections (makes sense, usually drivers and bicyclists are a bit more alert while at intersections and watching for potential crashes).
  • About half the fatalities were at night and about half during the day (you might find this at first glance surprising and might have assumed there should be more fatalities at nighttime, but it is probably reasonable to assume that there are many more bicyclists during daylight hours and less of a percentage that get killed, and probably though less numbers of nighttime bike riders they likely have a higher percent that gets killed).
  • 96% of the bicyclists are killed in single-vehicle crashes (makes sense, all it takes is one car and one bicyclist to collide and the car is most likely going to survive while the rider does not).
  • 84% of the fatalities involved the bicyclist getting hit by the front of the vehicle (makes sense, if a bicyclist rams into the back of a car they probably will be injured but not killed, while if the car rams into the bicyclist and likely doing so at a notable speed it’s going to be bad times for the bike rider).

Who’s at fault here?

Most of the bicyclists that I know would readily exclaim that it’s the fault of the car driver. If the car driver had been paying attention, the car could not have struck the bicyclist. End of story. Their view is that no matter what the bicyclist was doing, there is no justification for the car hitting the bike rider. A car can always come to a halt, or swerve to avoid the bicyclist, or otherwise prevent the collision from occurring.

I don’t want an army of bike riders to get mad at me, but I think this notion that it’s all on the shoulders of the car driver is a bit over-the-top.

I daily see bike riders that flout every known safety tip for bike riding. I say to myself, such-and-such is just asking to get hit. And even though, yes, a bike rider is legally considered a vehicle, I’ve said a million times that a bike is not the same as a car. Bike riders that think they are a car, are going to put themselves into dicey situations, and fault or no, the bike rider is going to lose this game of cat and mouse.

What Bicyclists Are Supposed To Do

Bicyclists are supposed to abide by the same rights and responsibilities as car drivers.

We often times begin to think that bicyclists can just go where they may.

In California, it’s the law that bicyclists do these things:

  • Obey all traffic signs
  • Obey all traffic lights
  • Ride in the same direction as traffic
  • Signal when turning
  • Signal when changing lanes
  • Wear a helmet if under the age of 18
  • Allow faster traffic to pass when safe
  • Stay visible and not weave between parked cars
  • Ride as near to the right curb as practical
  • Do not ride on the sidewalk unless legal exceptions allowed
  • Make left turns in the same way cars do
  • Make right turns in the same way cars do
  • At nighttime must have a front lamp
  • Must have a rear red reflector or equivalent
  • Reflectors on each pedal
  • Etc.

When my children were first learning to ride a bike, I informed them about these above legal rules.

Guess how long it took for them and their friends to abandon most of those rules?

Not long.

Should we arrest every bike rider that does not obey the laws?

Imagine how many arrests you’d need to make. The jails would be filled with bike riders. It would probably be the most prevalent crime committed. The number of police needed to catch and arrest all these scofflaws would mean we’d need to maybe double or triple the number of street cops. I suppose you’d have high school students with prison records going back to their days of kindergarten.

We can probably agree that we’re not going to be arresting all of these unlawful bike riders.

Can we get them to voluntarily be more lawful?

There are attempts to achieve this goal, including some wonderful bike riding classes and local campaigns that tout being safe as a bike rider.

Regrettably, these programs tend to change behavior only momentarily and then the bike riders revert back to their wild ways.

It’s hard to change behavior permanently in this sense, and it requires continual reminders.

Unlawful Acts By Bike Riders

What kinds of unlawful acts am I referring to, you might ask, well consider these:

  • Tend to ignore traffic signs and blow through stop signs
  • Treat traffic lights as a game that regardless of light color try to get through unscathed
  • Ride in the opposite direction of traffic (quite popular!)
  • Never signal when turning
  • Never signal when changing lanes
  • Be nearly invisible and weave between parked cars
  • Ride sometimes near the right curb but really wherever judgement suggests
  • Ride on the sidewalk (often done to avoid wayward cars)
  • Etc.

I have to admit that riding in the opposite direction of traffic is very tempting.

By doing so, you can see the cars coming at you. You have maybe a fighting chance of avoiding one hitting you. The problem with riding with the direction of traffic is that you can’t see the car coming up behind you that is going to knock you off your bike and possibly kill you. I’m not going to argue here that we should change the laws about this, and I realize that driving facing traffic can be jarring for both the cars and the bicyclist. Just explaining why some people ride in the opposite direction of the cars.

A savvy bike rider is constantly watching how the cars are driving.

Is that driver aware that a bike rider is nearby?

Does the driver even car that a bike rider is nearby?

Is that car weaving and maybe the driver is drunk?

Is there a chance that one car will cut-off another car and the car so cut-off will weave into the bike lane?

It seems like most car drivers consider “inconveniencing” a bike rider to be a small price to pay, and that it’s better than possibly hitting another car or having another car hit them.

Unfortunately, not all bike riders are savvy bike riders. Also, some bike riders become complacent and after a while figure if they are still alive then they must be riding a bike correctly. Some bike riders don’t know or don’t remember what the rules of being on a bike are. There are also those bike riders that are determined intentionally to do unlawful acts and know they are doing so. It’s their way of getting back at the man. This though seems shortsighted since if they get hit and killed, I’m not sure that they won over the man, so to speak.

Car Driver Issues And Bike Riders

I’d like to next shift focus to the car drivers in the equation of bike riders on-the-road and mixing with cars.

There are some car drivers that outright hate bike riders. I’ve seen some car drivers that purposely swerve their car towards a bicyclist. In other cases, they give the finger to bicyclist or roll down the window and yell at them. Get out of my way, they say.

These drivers believe that bicycles should be banned, or at least forced to only be used in say parks or at the beach, in places where no car traffic is allowed anyway.

Recently, here in Southern California, when a local city decided to reduce the number of lanes in a particular stretch of road by making some of the lanes into bicycle lanes, the outrage became deafening once the change had been made. Drivers reported that they were now stuck in slow traffic. The nearby neighborhoods had cars roving through them, since the car drivers were desperate to get around the now constrained traffic. Shop owners said that less people drove to where their stores were located because the car drivers knew that the street was now choked with traffic.

That generated a true bikelash.

Does this imply that all car drivers are angry at bike riders?

No, certainly not.

There are many drivers that are happy to share the world’s roadways with bike riders.

Unfortunately, what often happens is a few bike riders cause a problem, and the car drivers take this out on all bike riders. Likewise, the few car drivers that are especially mean to bike riders, cause many bike riders to become wary of all car drivers. It doesn’t take much of a spark to cause car drivers to get fired up, and the same is true for bike riders. The rest of us are likely somewhere in-between. Nonetheless, us reasonable car drivers are surrounded by car drivers that want to rid the planet of bike riders and we must contend with their antics.

Sadly, there are also car drivers that seem to be living in their own bubble and rarely contemplate the plight of the bike rider.

For these blind-deaf-dumb car drivers, they don’t look for bike riders. They don’t anticipate what a bike rider might do. They simply drive their car, straight ahead, and when a bike rider appears, it doesn’t register in their minds, unless the bike rider happens to do something extraordinary. Often, at that point, it’s too late for the driver to do anything to avoid a collision. The daydreaming car driver can be just as dangerous to bike riders as the will-get-them-at-any-cost car drivers.

Speaking of costs, here’s something else to consider. A car driver is typically wary of hitting another car. They are wary because they know that they themselves could get injured or killed. Subliminally, the average car driver does not think there’s much of a consequence to hitting a bike rider. Yes, it would be bad. Yes, it might injure the bike rider. But, this is a lot less “serious” since the car driver is unlikely to themselves get injured or killed. The threat to bodily harm of a car-contacts-car is exponential in comparison to car-contacts-bike. Also, these drivers also figure that if they strike a bike, the bike rider is simply going to take a spill onto the road, and maybe the bike gets a little bent up. No real damage involved. Car-to-car contact involves often significant repair bills to the car and a rise in car insurance.

That being said, any car driver that’s ever been in an actual collision with a bike rider knows that this aforementioned concept is not what really tends to happen. The car driver can be injured or killed if in the nature of the collision they ram into something else in addition to the bike. For any driver with a conscience, the hitting of the bike rider will haunt them the rest of their lives. The injury to the bike rider can be severe and life limiting. The car driver can be charged with a crime. They can be sued to cover the damages. Thus, the “idealized” belief that hitting a bike is not that bad a thing, it’s a whole different story once it happens.

AI Autonomous Cars And Bikes

What does this all have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

At the Cybernetic Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI systems for self-driving cars and included is the development of specialized software related to bicyclists, which by some of the automakers and tech firms is considered an “edge” problem.

An edge problem is one that is outside the core of the overall problem being solved.

Getting a self-driving car to properly drive down a road, being able to stay within the lanes of traffic, make turns legally, and otherwise drive like a regular car is supposed to drive – that’s considered the core problem to be solved for AI self-driving cars. Having to deal with things like pedestrians, or things like bikes and bicyclists, well those are second fiddle and usually considered an edge problem. Definitely want to eventually solve an edge problem, but it’s not the highest priority.

We believe that solving the self-driving car aspects of detecting and avoiding hitting bicyclists is a crucial aspect of being on the public roadways.

A self-driving car that does not have provision for especially watching out for bike riders is about the same as the human driver that does not pay attention to bike riders. The head-in-the-sand approach will only last so long. Ultimately, inexorably, an AI self-driving car is going to hit a bike rider if there’s no particular capability in the AI to avoid doing so.

I’ve seen some of the existing self-driving cars being tested on public roadways that don’t have any bike riders present at all.

We don’t know for sure that those self-driving cars can handle dealing with bike riders.

In other cases, there are bike riders present, but by a stroke of luck the bike riders are dutifully abiding by the proper bike riding rules of the road. As such, once again the AI self-driving car can pretty much ignore them. The rule-of-thumb seems to be that don’t bother me, I won’t bother you. In other words, the AI self-driving car won’t do anything to mess up the bike rider deliberately, and the AI self-driving car is hoping and betting that the bike rider will do likewise.

This does not take into account the bike riders that whirl and dance and go wherever they darned well please.

The question arises as to what the AI will do with those bike riders.

Some AI developers tell me that it’s easily solved. If an object appears in front of the self-driving car, regardless of whether it is a bike rider or maybe a spaceship from Mars, all the AI has to do is detect the object and bring the car to a halt. It doesn’t matter that it’s a bike rider. The AI shouldn’t need to care. Any object, the rule is, don’t hit it.

Okay, I say, let’s follow that logic along. A child is riding their bike. It’s a school zone. The AI self-driving car is going the speed limit. We’ll say it’s going at 25 miles per hour (which is about 37 feet per second). The child, not paying attention to the car traffic, suddenly swerves in front of the self-driving car. The self-driving car needs to react. Can it come to a halt, having been going at 37 feet per second, in time to avoid the child that has nearly immediately appeared in front of the self-driving car? Answer, probably not.

Furthermore, maybe the self-driving car could have swerved to avoid hitting the bike.

Or, maybe the AI should have been anticipating that a child on a bike might make an erratic action, and so have gone slower, maybe decreased speed to 5 miles per hour, as a precaution.

Or changed lanes to give a wide berth for the bike rider.

Incorporating Bike Riding Elements Into The AI

A bike rider has certain characteristics that can be modeled and possibly predicted.

The bike and bike rider are not just any object.

They are not the same as a light pole or a fire hydrant.

They are usually a moving object, though can be at rest or stationary at times too.

They have a particular kind of profile.

We know that this moving object is intended to go in certain ways, and we also know that it can substantially decide to do something untoward.

Let’s consider my framework for AI self-driving cars, see:

In addition, consider the maneuverability aspects of AI self-driving cars:

I’ll walk you through the main elements of:

  • Sensors
  • Sensor Fusion
  • Virtual World Model
  • AI Action Plan
  • Car Controls Command

The first aspect to consider is the sensor of the self-driving car.

The hope is to be able to detect the presence of the bike rider.

This can be potentially done via the visual sensors of the cameras. Imagine a picture of a street scene and you need to find the bike rider somewhere in the picture. This can be easy, if the bike rider is fully visible. This can be hard, if the bike rider is partially obscured by being behind another car or other objects. The visual aspects should be triangulated with the use of radar, sonar, and LIDAR (light and radar, if available on the self-driving car). Any of these sensors might catch a glimpse of a bike rider. The bike rider can appear and seemingly disappear, but hopefully at least one or more of the sensors is able to detect them.

Next is the sensor fusion.

This involves bringing together the sensory data and trying to reconcile it. The bike rider might be detected by the LIDAR, but the camera can’t spot him or her. Should the LIDAR be trusted or it is a false indication of a bike rider? The sensor fusion should be assessing which of the sensors is right or wrong, or at least potentially right or wrong. By combining together the bits and pieces from the multiple sensors, it possibly provides a strong indication of where the bike rider is.

During the virtual world model update, the AI should be tracking the bike rider.

Where did the bike rider initially get detected? How fast is the bike rider moving? Is the bike rider riding smoothly or erratically? Does the bike rider seem to be a child or an adult? Does the bike rider pose a threat to the self-driving car? Does the self-driving car pose a threat to the bike rider? What can be done to reduce the risks of colliding with the bike rider? And so on.

From the updates of the virtual world model, the AI action plan needs to get updated. Maybe the self-driving car should slow down, and so the AI will be instructing the car to do so. Or, maybe alert the bike rider that the car is nearby and a danger is ensuing, this could involve honking the horn or taking some other conspicuous action. Or, speed-up. Or change lanes. Etc.

For more about AI self-driving car conspicuity, see my article:

Finally, the AI then needs to issue commands to the controls of the car.

This will then take time to be enacted. The AI will need to detect once the actual physical car has taken the action deemed needed, and then cycle back through each of these steps accordingly. In some cases, this will need to happen in split seconds and so the timing of detecting the bike rider, predicting their actions, updating the model, updating the AI action plan, and issuing the car control commands can be crucial to avoiding a collision.

See my article about the cognitive timing of AI self-driving car aspects:

Multiple Bikes At The Same Time

So far, the above highlights the acts of a solo bike rider.

In real life, the odds are that wherever there is one bike rider, there will likely be more.

It could be a school is nearby and a bunch of kids are riding their bikes to school. It could be a bike club and a gaggle of bike riders are out for their exercise. The point being that even though it seems like a hard problem to track and predict one bike rider, the odds are that this is a much more difficult problem because there are bound to be many bike riders all at once.

It becomes an interesting problem too to keep track of the various bike riders as though they are individuals.

Allow me to explain.

One approach is to just treat every bike rider as just another bike rider and happens to be here or there at a particular point in time. On the other hand, we human drivers often notice that say three bike riders are all riding smoothly, and there’s a fourth one that seems to be veering outside the bike lane. Probably wise to keep an eye especially on the one that weaves outside the bike lane, we say to ourselves. Likewise, the AI should be virtually tagging the bike riders and trying to trace them over time. This is significant with regard to making predictions about their likely behavior.

There are moments at which the AI self-driving car needs to be acutely aware of the presence of bike riders.

When getting ready to make a right turn, one of the more common mistakes is that a bike rider comes from the right of the car and the car turns directly into the path of the bike rider. I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you. You might complain that it was the “stupid” bike rider that caused this. Well, it would be better to try and have the AI self-driving car avoid hitting even a “stupid” bike rider, and so by being alert the AI can be anticipating it might happen and take steps to avoid a collision.

Another factor to consider is daylight and nighttime.

Nighttime is going to be harder for the visual sensors of the self-driving car to detect a bike rider. Many bike riders do not have lights. This is a recipe for disaster. Inclement weather will also have an impact on the ability of the sensors to detect the bike rider. In short, the AI system cannot be programmed to simply assume that it will be nice and sunny, and that the profile of the bike rider will be one hundred percent noticeable.

There are also the use cases of a bike rider that is not actually riding their bike.

Perhaps the bike rider is walking their bike.

You might say this is then a pedestrian and no longer a bike rider.

I’d suggest that it is more of a grey area.

The walking person can suddenly hop onto the bike and start riding it.

The AI self-driving car should be anticipating this possibility.

The profile of a person riding a bike is also different looking than when riding a bike.

I mention the profile aspects because many of the AI self-driving cars use Machine Learning (ML) such as artificial neural networks for purposes of finding objects in visual images that are captured. The neural network is typically trained on thousands of pictures of people riding bikes. This then allows for the neural network to inspect a new image and try to gauge whether there is a bike rider in there. Suppose that the only pictures used to train the neural network consisted of riding bike riders. A walking bike rider then might not be detected as being a bike accompanied person.

For those of you further interested in this aspect of detecting a bike and someone walking the bike, you might want to read about my forensic analysis of the Uber self-driving car death in Arizona that involved a pedestrian walking a bike:


Biketown versus bikelash.

Bicyclists, love them or hate them.

The AI self-driving car has to know about bicyclists since they exist and they are on the roadways. This edge problem is vital to becoming part of the capabilities of any proficient AI self-driving car. You could potentially have a Level 5 self-driving car that had no ability to detect and deal with bike riders (a Level 5 is considered the top of the scale and means that it is AI that can drive the car as a human can), but I would assert that such a lack in capability is not only a significant omission but I dare say not what we all would want a true self-driving car to be able to handle.

With a proficient AI self-driving car, there’s a fighting chance to reduce the 45,000 annual biker injuries and the 1,000 or so annual deaths.

Hold your breath for a moment when I say that if the AI isn’t good enough, we might actually end-up with more injured bike riders and more human bike rider deaths.

We cannot just assume that the AI self-driving car will magically eliminate those injuries and deaths.

Bikelash will become AI-lash, if AI self-driving cars start hitting bike riders.

Mark my words.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.

[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]

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