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Intelligent cars put the brakes on for cyclists

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration James Provost

WITH EACH NEW DEVLOPMENT in automaking, it becomes more and more obvious that the future of driving will involve cars that are smarter than we are—or at least faster at making life-or-death decisions. Take the latest announcement from Swedish car company Volvo: Piggybacking on technology that prevents collisions with pedestrians and other cars, engineers have developed the first-ever system that’s capable of recognizing a cyclist before he pulls in front of you and automatically applying the brakes. The system uses radar, a video camera and a complex decision-making algorithm to differentiate between a biker you’re about to run off the road and things like stray newspapers and shadows, a setup that engineers will adapt for other types of collision risks (next up: deer). Here’s how they did it.

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1. Many cars, including Volvos, already offer collision-avoidance technology. In preventing bike accidents, engineers faced the challenge of teaching a car to recognize a cyclist. This required “training” the system’s video camera in what a human body looks like on a bicycle, and its radar in recognizing movements that typically precede car-cyclist crashes.

2. Next, the engineers shut off the system’s automatic braking component, allowing test drivers to train the cars in bike-heavy cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam without unintentionally causing a wreck. Essentially, this involved letting the system make decisions and telling it, “Yes, that’s a granny on a bike,” or, “No, that’s a flower stand.”

3.  Once it was fairly sure the system worked, Volvo reinstated the braking component and brought out the crash-test dummies for trials. The aim was to have the car stop only if a cyclist was heading directly for a collision. “You have to make sure it doesn’t intervene when it shouldn’t,” says Martin Magnusson, Volvo active-safety engineer.

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