The November issue of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project Monthly Report was all about motorcyclists and how Google is tackling the difficult task of designing an autonomous vehicle that’s capable of safely sharing the road with smaller, lighter, faster accelerating and braking motorcycles. Lucky for us, a senior software engineer named Christian is involved with developing Google’s autonomous technology.

Autonomous Motorcycling

In the report below Christian reduces some of the of the anxiety of riding on public roads with driverless vehicles. When taking into consideration the damage-inflicting human factor, motorcyclists may well be safer without humans behind the steering wheel. It’s interesting that their testing also accounts for the legality of lane splitting in California (as well as other parts of the world).

Meet Motobot, Yamaha’s Motorcycle-Riding Robot

When it all goes to hell in a handbasket, and they illegalize any type of human operation of a vehicle on a public road we’ll (hopefully) always have the racetrack.

Google Self-Driving Car Project
Monthly Report November 2016

Motorcyclists risk their lives daily on American roads each year – motorcyclists accounted for 27 times more deaths than drivers in cars in 2014, after adjusting for miles traveled. Human error from other drivers is often to blame, with drivers failing to spot motorcycles before making turns or changing lanes. By removing this human error, our self-driving cars have the potential to make the roads safer for riders and other road users.

While each type of road user has their own quirks, we’ve found motorcycles a particularly unique class. Though they obey the same traffic laws as cars, motorcycles come in very different shapes, sizes and styles of driving. This month senior software engineer Christian, who rides a BMW K1600 GT and is a card-carrying member of the American Motorcyclist Association, explains how he is using his firsthand knowledge to help Google’s self-driving cars and motorcycles share the road safely.

How do you think Google’s self-driving cars help make your ride safer?
Christian: For a motorcyclist, the biggest issue is visibility. I’ve lost count of the number of times that a driver hasn’t seen me coming on my bike, or has made a turn in front of me without first looking. Our self-driving cars don’t get distracted and can see 360 degrees, two football fields away. Humans also have more difficulty seeing smaller things — like bikes — when there is less light. But thanks to our suite of sensors, our cars are just as capable of seeing motorcycles in the pitch dark as in full sunlight.

Our goal in designing a fully self-driving car is that the vehicle is responsible for 100% of the driving. Ultimately we think this is safer than partially autonomous vehicles, which could suddenly hand back control to a person who may not have full awareness of their surroundings, endangering themselves and those around them.

How do your self-driving cars recognize motorcycles and distinguish them from other objects on the road?
We know it is important that our cars can tell the difference between motorcycles and similar objects, such as bicycles. Our software doesn’t need to have seen a particular model of motorcycle in order to recognize them on the road. Through a process called machine learning, our software mimics how humans recognize these road users. For example, you may have never seen a Harley-Davidson Roadster or Ducati 899 Panigale before, but you still know that it is a motorcycle because it looks like other bikes you’ve come across.

Over the last 7 years, we’ve come across thousands upon thousands of motorcycles. Our software learns from these examples in order to build a broader recognition of motorcycles in general, accounting for differences in size, speed, design and countless other factors in behavior.

How does Google’s technology account for the different ways motorcyclists move on the road?
The most obvious is lane splitting, when a motorcycle weaves through other vehicles between different lanes on the road. Recently my home state of California became the first state to formally legalize lane splitting — and it’s very common, particularly during peak hour.

We’ve taught our software to recognize and safely respond to this type of riding. Because we’ve observed many instances of lane splitting, we’re better able to predict how a rider will navigate around us and other cars. When safe, our cars will actually move slightly to the side to give a passing motorcycle more room to maneuver. And our software understands that motorcycles are quicker to brake and accelerate, so our vehicle acts accordingly, driving more conservatively and giving more room to nearby riders.


  • Starmag

    Since Google cares about my safety so much(/s), what’s next? Autonomous hearts? Autonomous parachutes? Autonomous Speedos?

    My biggest concern isn’t accidents or terrorists, It’s nerds.

    • And you are our biggest concern.

      • Starmag

        If I’m your biggest concern, you’ve got it made in life. : 7 )

        Sorry if I touched a nerve, or was that humor? So hard to tell sometimes online.

        On topic, if you’ve read Kurzweil or the like you’d know what I meant.

        • MO is a nerd site, created by a nerd, run by nerds, and read by the best nerds on earth.

          • Starmag

            Nerds are supposed to be smart, surely at least some of them must have heard of Kurzweil and his ilk and understood my reference. Since you self identify as such, there’s no need to be defensive. The commenter with the most upvotes on this thread, John B., states ” Actually, my biggest concern is whether humans will become superfluous altogether. It seems inevitable.” Who would want that as a goal? If it’s not a goal, why would we allow it? That’s all I was referring to.

          • John B.

            When human intelligence and consciousness can be created and reproduced in a machine, what purpose do human beings serve?

          • Starmag

            With a mechanistic view of existence what purpose do human beings serve? Robot chattel?
            With a non-mechanistic view, love robots?
            I’ll remain skeptical until the first proven consciousness transfer. With my admittedly limited intelligence and foresight,( just ask Mrs. Mag ), I’m guessing not possible.

          • Gruf Rude

            Unless corporate law changes, Cyberdyne will plunge us all over the cliff in blind pursuit of improving quarterly profits.

          • John B.

            Ethical considerations rarely stop technological progress. None of us asked to have a smartphone become an indispensable human appendage; it just happened. I think of AI as part of the human evolutionary process. Nothing can stop it. Eternal life as binary code inscripted on a hard drive beats the alternative.

          • Starmag

            For some, I suppose it would. Just think of the binary first dates! How exciting. Your hard drive or hers? Hers?

            Your first sentence explains my first comment in this thread.

            “Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto”

  • DickRuble

    I have a far better and efficient solution. Treat each road infraction that leads to another party’s death as murder with mandatory 20 years in jail, confiscation of assets and distribution to other party’s estate. Any road infraction with the potential of death to someone else, treat as attempted murder. You’ll see how the vision of drivers, even the cyclops (did you know it’s ok in the US to have only one eye and still drive?) improving to 20/10.

    • denchung

      You might be overestimating people’s ability to not be stupid.

    • Gruf Rude

      As an attorney who spent most of his career in criminal and constitutional law, your solution is neither better nor efficient, but sadly, too often implemented by short-sighted legislators.
      The criminal law is a blunt instrument and not at all suited to resolving day-to-day interactions like traffic collisions. Mandatory minimums are an abomination, asset forfeiture is bundled with a whole ‘nother raft of problems and trying cases with proof beyond a reasonable doubt in the already-overburdened criminal courts would simply be impossible.
      Local example: two women chattering away in a mini-van run right over a downed motorcyclist and good Samaritan at 65 MPH, never touching the brakes until 250+ yards past impact. Two dead, months of pre-trial discovery , etc., week long jury trial: not guilty.

      • DickRuble

        Your example proves my point rather than disprove it: we need new legislation. Two dead –> two times twenty years mandatory for the driver. No ifs no buts. With the rising number of cars on the road it would seem reasonable to also raise the bar for obtaining a driver’s license.

        • Gruf Rude

          It doesn’t work that way in real life. The woman in my example was facing a high misdemeanor with a maximum jail time of one year and the jury wouldn’t convict her; up the stakes to 20 years and conviction is impossible.

          Leaving aside that ’20 year minimum’ kind of penalties for negligent behavior are generally found to be unconstitutional, no jury is going to send a soccer mom to jail for a 20 year minimum on an unintentional traffic collision. Ridiculously harsh penalties for momentary inattention will not result in un-distractable humans.

          I’ve worked with mandatory minimums and federal sentencing guidelines for years and everyone, prosecutors, defense counsel and particularly judges who have to work with that ‘zero tolerance’ legislation recognize that it really amounts to ‘zero intelligence.’ We already jail more people for longer than any other civilized nation; we can’t afford to double down on failed policy.

          • DickRuble

            Ok. then let them run you over . There are countries where, in the past, if you ran over a pedestrian you went to jail for eight or nine years. To the family of a victim it makes little difference that you killed their loved one intentionally or just because you were busy texting.

  • John B.

    Based on what I have observed while riding my motorcycle, I have no doubt autonomous vehicles will be much safer than human driven vehicles. Distracted and inebriated driving have become a major health hazard. My only question is whether motorcycles will be allowed on roadways once all other vehicles become autonomously driven. Actually, my biggest concern is whether humans will become superfluous altogether. It seems inevitable.

    • Gruf Rude

      I’ll be dead before the present infrastructure gets to the point where all the other vehicles are autonomous, but we are rapidly reaching the point were we are superfluous. Either A.I. creations will take over or we will overwhelm the planet’s ability to carry us. As Edward Abbey observed, continuous growth is the ethos of a cancer cell.

      • John B.

        We may already be living in a simulated universe, but it doesn’t really matter.

        • Gruf Rude

          Occam’s razor suggests otherwise, but yes, it doesn’t matter.

    • Curtis Brandt

      Piloting a motorcycle on roads populated otherwise with driverless cars is on my bucket list. Will it occur, and in my lifetime? I will continue to dream.

      • Old MOron

        My uncle has a country place
        That no one knows about
        He says it used to be a farm
        Before the Motor Law

        • My favorite comment of the year. Long live the Red Barchettas of the world and damn those gleaming alloy air cars!

          • Old MOron

            Favorite comment of the year?
            Since there are only about two weeks left in 2016, maybe no one will come along and top me 🙂

  • Joe

    Just nitpicking, but motorcycles do not brake faster than cars. That myth has been proven false, even ABS equipped bikes cannot out-stop an average car.

  • HazardtoMyself

    Looks like we may find out how well this works sooner than later.

    Hope the “engineer” is paying attention and not watching a movie on his phone.

  • Adam

    Dear Google, Tesla, & other manufacturers of self driving vehicles: Please sell me a cheap device that I can plug in to my vehicle that broadcasts my location, speed and direction to your self driving vehicle.