When Google released its first accident reports in June, the company revealed that in the combined 1.8 million miles its cars had been on the road, they had been involved in 12 minor accidents, none of which were their fault.
But this default to caution can cause strange incidents when Google cars run into humans engaging in nonstandard behavior.
One such incident reportedly occurred earlier this month in Austin, when a robot car was baffled by a man riding a fixed-gear bike — aka a fixie, a favorite of so-called hipsters around the world — The Washington Post reports.
Here's what happened.
The Google car and the cyclist both arrived at a four-way stop.
The car got there a fraction of a second before the bike, and the cyclist says he waited for it to continue through.
But instead of just putting a foot on the ground at the stop sign, the cyclist did what's called a trackstand.
A trackstand, common among fixie riders, involves the rider pedaling both forward and backward while trying to stay upright and moving a minimal distance.
This GIF shows a rider on a fixed-geared bike doing a trackstand:
The issue is that, during such a trackstand, the rider does usually move slightly forward or backward — at least enough to alert the conscientious Google car that some human might be blasting through the stop sign.
"It apparently detected my presence," the cyclist writes. "And stayed stationary for several seconds. It finally began to proceed, but as it did, I rolled forward an inch while still standing. The car immediately stopped … I continued to stand, it continued to stay stopped. Then as it began to move again, I had to rock the bike to maintain balance. It stopped abruptly."
The car just could not make up its mind as to what this cyclist was doing.
"We repeated this little dance for about two full minutes and the car never made it past the middle of the intersection," the cyclist writes.
But even though the car's behavior was strange, the cyclist says he felt safer dealing with it than a human-operated car.
In a recent survey, 27% of Americans said they would support laws restricting human drivers and favoring robot cars in the future.
Perhaps cyclists, who routinely face unsafe human drivers on the road, might lead the charge.
For its part, Google says it is trying to take cyclists seriously. The company has patented a method by which self-driving cars can identify cyclists and understand their hand signals.
Though Google still hasn't answered the question of why hipsters love fixed-gear bikes so much.
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We’ve all been there. You’re walking down the sidewalk, minding your own business, when, hurtling toward you, threatening public peace, safety, and sanity, is that horror of all horrors: a bicyclist. Bicycling on the sidewalk is illegal in New York—not to mention dangerous!—and your sense of righteous indignation grows and doesn’t subside until you speak your mind, profanely. Of course, the same scenario can unfold from a different angle. You can be biking along peacefully, following the rules (hello, bike lane!) when, out of nowhere, against the light, a pedestrian walks blithely into the street, with no regard for the rules or your safety. You swerve; cue the expletives. Or you can be driving when a cyclist or pedestrian dashes across an intersection against the light, showing an obvious contempt for your right of way. (Can you get a ticket for that?) Unprintable words follow.
The moral of the story, in all three cases, is the same. Whichever mode of transportation you currently happen to be using—whether you’re the pedestrian, the cyclist, or the driver—you are correct, no matter the scenario. Everyone else is in your way, wrong, annoying, and otherwise a terrible human being.
The fight for the streets is, presumably, as old as the streets. From the moment the first horse and buggy hit the London pavement, hansom drivers and startled pedestrians likely had words. But why does this particular drama play out as it does? And in the modern urban landscape—which includes more people, more cars, and, in recent years, more bikes than ever before—can there be any good answer to the question of who, if anyone, is in the right?
From urban design to interpersonal psychology, a number of factors shape how we experience these vehicular encounters. In his history of bicycling and the politics surrounding it, “One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility,” Zack Furness points out that, almost as soon as automobiles were invented, they became the focal point of urban development: for over a century, cities have been planned around thoroughfares, and cars have been their reigning kings. But automobiles don’t rule only because they’re convenient; they also confer social cachet. From the Model T onward, cars have conveyed a level of power and prestige that’s beyond the reach of other modes of transportation. As the Times put it, in 1922, “As a rule, automobility implies higher individual power, better economic distribution and a potentially higher social state.”
Cars, in short, are status symbols. Just as owning a bike conveys autonomy upon a ten-year-old—you can ride to your friend’s house even in the absence of a willing parental chauffeur—so, too, does having a car convey freedom and power upon the first-time car-owner. A car shows that you’ve accomplished something. You may not be able to own a home, but you can own this one thing, which will take you anywhere you want to go. It’s a feeling of pride mixed with an air of open possibility. Think back to the swagger of the seventies classic Grease: everything you are hinges on your automobile.
For drivers, that sense of proprietorship can lead to a feeling of conscious or unconscious entitlement: I deserve to own the streets because of what I’ve achieved, both fiscally (I can afford this car) and symbolically (I’m in a big metallic monster that can—metaphorically, of course—crush you). As the Lancaster University sociologists Mimi Sheller and John Urry point out, cars cast their drivers in a role of “disciplining and domination” in a way that other modes of transportation, such as walking or bicycling, do not. As drivers, we always have the right of way because we are bigger and better. It’s survival of the fittest.
Power, however, isn’t the only source for feelings of entitlement. There’s also precedence, a sense of I got here first that translates into it’s my right of way. Precedence-based reasoning is everywhere in life. We expect that no one will cut us in line, and we feel cheated when a person arrives to join someone ahead of us in the queue. We think we should earn more than a new hire; we believe that seniority in a group should be respected, and get mad when our status is usurped by an upstart. So it goes when it comes to the feeling of owning the road: precedence comes first.
Technically, that logic means that pedestrians are always right, since walking is how we got around for millennia. But, practically, that precedence doesn’t count for much. As Antonia Malchik argued in an essay in Aeon this summer, in the United States, city culture positioned walkers as newcomers almost right from the start. “Jaywalking,” she writes, “was once a semi-derogatory term referring to country bumpkins, or ‘jays,’ who inefficiently meandered around American cities; by the 1920s, the term was being used to transfer blame for accidents from motorists to pedestrians.” Walking may have come before driving, but alternative modes of urban transport—horses, buggies, trams, sleighs, cars—have cut in line. In fact, the first urban planning centered on pedestrians and bicyclists didn’t happen until the nineteen-sixties, when people like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs began to push back against auto-centric planning. In cities like New York, ubiquitous bike lanes are a relatively young phenomenon, and the pedestrian islands that now dot Manhattan are products of the Bloomberg administration. In Los Angeles, major bike lane expansions were only approved this year.
In terms of social cachet and temporal precedence, bicyclists are worse off than everyone else. They lose to the precedence game to pedestrians, who can say—even if no one cares—that they got there first. At the same time, bicycles lack the weight and status of automobiles. Cyclists are marginalized practically, too: bike on the road and you’re in the realm of the car; on the sidewalk, you’re in the realm of the pedestrian. Walking is a human ability; driving is an urban right. Bicycling is neither.
Bicyclists, of course, can marshal different arguments that give them the advantage. One factor can overwhelm precedence and power: critical mass. Think of those moments when an errant pedestrian or cyclist crosses against the light only to be followed by a wave of compatriots. Against one, you can honk; faced with a mass, you must wait. As more and more people bike—a trend that’s growing worldwide, in part because of the rise of bike-sharing programs—bicyclists achieve through sheer numbers what their lack of power and precedence has denied them. (In 2006, Ben McGrath wrote about the rising popularity of bicycling in New York.)
And bicyclists have a new argument on their side: moral rectitude, with its corresponding sense of entitlement. Who are you, they ask, to be driving a clunker and killing the environment? I am making the morally superior choice when I get on my bike; I am de facto in the right because I am the better (and fitter) human being. As an argument, it’s hard to resist—especially since, from the moment we invoke moral arguments, we tend to ignore other kinds of reasoning that earlier we found appealing.
Drawing on these arguments about power, precedence, and morality—and, also, through sheer numbers—pedestrians, drivers, and bicyclists all make strong claims to the streets. And yet the picture is even more complex, because almost no one is exclusively a walker, a cyclist, or a driver. We shift from role to role, and with those changes comes a shift in our vantage point.
There is, therefore, another, and perhaps more fundamental, source for our sense of vehicular entitlement: egocentricity. We all experience the world from our own point of view, and find it exceedingly difficult to move away from that selfish anchor. (Psychologists call this our egocentric bias.) Who we are colors what and how we see, and who we are changes depending on our mode of transportation. When we walk, we’re pedestrians. When we’re in a car, we’re drivers. When we bike, we’re cyclists. And whoever we are at the moment, we feel that we are deserving of priority.
When it comes to in-the-moment judgment, we don’t think abstractly, in terms of rules or laws or even common sense. We think concretely, in terms of our own personal needs at that very moment. It takes a big, effortful leap to tear ourselves out of that mode and accept someone else’s argument—and it’s an effort we don’t often make unless we’re specifically prompted to do so. And so, in some sense, it doesn’t matter who came first, or who’s the most powerful, or who’s best for the environment, or what the rules might say. What matters is what we, personally, happen to be doing. It’s hard to remind ourselves that we all play interchangeable roles within the urban landscape. In the end, it’s the role we’re in right now that matters. The never-ending war between bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians reflects a basic, and often wrong, mental shortcut, upon which we all too often rely: Who is in the right? I am.