clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Google's robot cars recognize cyclists' hand signals — better than most cyclists

Meet the only car that will let you take over the whole lane, bikers.

Biking alongside manually driven cars can be a nightmare for both the biker and the driver. Bikers can be fast. They weave in and out of traffic and sometimes human drivers toe the line when deciding how much space to give them — and sometimes they don’t. But now, thanks to Google’s many in-house bikers, the company’s self-driving car not only knows how to navigate around cyclists but can recognize, understand and remember their hand signals.

“Cyclists often make hand signals far in advance of a turn, and our software is designed to remember previous signals from a rider so it can better anticipate a rider's turn down the road,” Google wrote in its monthly self-driving report.


This is an important aspect for a self-driving car that shares the roads with pedestrians and manually driven cars. While automakers and tech companies can outfit a car with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology to enable communication between two cars or between cars and things like traffic signals, communicating with a pedestrian is much more difficult.

A robot car needs to not only be able to communicate its intentions to pedestrians but also understand a pedestrian’s intentions. Detecting and understanding human gestures is a hugely important part of that. That means the technology is ostensibly capable of understanding things like a pedestrian waving a car by when it’s, say, at a stop sign.

Google wouldn’t exactly be the first to the punch — Mercedes demonstrated its capability to understand human gestures with its concept car — but at a time when some autonomous technology has yet to even navigate shared roads much less around pedestrians or cyclists, it’s certainly a good sign.

Google’s robot car will even surrender the entire lane to the cyclist if they’re showing signs of moving closer. It might strike some drivers as overly polite, but for a robot-driven car, erring on the cautious side while navigating around humans is probably the best bet.

“For example, when our sensors detect a parallel-parked car with an open door near a cyclist, our car is programmed to slow down or nudge over to give the rider enough space to move towards the center of the lane and avoid the door,” Google’s report read. “Whether the road is too narrow or they’re making a turn, we respect this indication that cyclists want to claim their lane.”

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.