Self-Driving Cars Don’t See Cyclists Either
By Paul Rauber
This Bike to Work Day, spare a thought for Elaine Herzberg, the Tempe, Arizona woman who was killed by an Uber self-driving car driving in autonomous mode on March 18. Both Uber and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident; according to The Information, Uber has concluded that the software that determines how the car is to react to objects had been set to ignore false positives, "such as a plastic bag floating over the road." Except in this case, the object was not a plastic bag but a woman wheeling her bike across the road.
A lot was written about Herzberg's death, in part because a cyclist getting killed by a driverless car is more novel than the 800+ cyclists who are killed each year by humans at the wheel. The League of American Bicyclists reports that the U.S. Senate is now taking up the AV START Act, Congress' first go at setting guidelines for the testing of autonomous vehicles on public streets. The League wants to make sure that that framework requires these vehicles to "see" cyclists:
When human drivers apply for a driver's license we have to pass a vision test. The League believes that all automated driving systems should have to pass a "vision test" as well. Please join the League in asking Senators to require automated vehicles to pass a vision test.
Sadly, just because human drivers can pass a vision test doesn't necessarily mean that they will see cyclists (as I can personally attest, having recently been rear-ended). Even if drivers are not looking at their cell phones or their infotainment systems, "inattentional blindness" can lead them to look a cyclist in the face and still turn right in front of your path. A 2017 study by researchers from the Australian National University, Canberra, examined the psychological mechanisms behind "look-but-failed-to-see" crashes involving motorcycles (which seem to share the same lack of visibility that afflicts bicycles). "Participants were twice as likely to miss a motorcycle compared with a taxi," the study concluded—in part, at least, because its "threat value" was lesser. A motorcycle (or bicycle) is less likely to injure a driver than a taxi, rendering it less visible—sort of like a plastic bag floating across the road.
How can cyclists make themselves more conspicuous? Unpublished research by Clemson University's Rick Tyrrell makes a surprising suggestion. He found that cyclists wearing fluorescent leggings were visible to motorists three times further away than cyclists wearing dark leggings and fluorescent jackets. The reason seems to be that humans are programmed to notice human activity, and illuminating the up-and-down motion of a cyclist's legs does the trick. Tyrrell's findings, as summarized by Road Biker Rider, are these:
- Running full-time lights is safer than no lights at all.
- A flashing tail light is safer than a steady (always-on) tail light.
- A steady light worn on your ankle or heel makes you even more conspicuous.
- Colorful (and fluorescent) clothing is fine for the torso, but even better at letting drivers know you're a cyclist if worn on your legs.
Until we get around to widespread installation of protected bike lanes, cyclists need to protect themselves. Ride safe!
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
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In 'Road Map for a More Sustainable Future,' NY Regulator Tells Banks to Consider Climate Risks in Planning
By Brett Wilkins
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