3/6/16

Riding with Robots: Sharing the Road With Self-Driving Cars

It's a car's world, but that is all going to change, sort of.  If tech companies with endless resources and eager to compete car makers are to be believed, we are approaching one of the biggest changes in transportation history.  The age of the self-driving car is near, and in my opinion, it can't come too soon.

Recently, one of Google's self-driving cars had a low speed run in with a bus, so apparently there are some details to work out. If Google had asked a cyclist they would have known that bus drivers yield to no one!  Nonetheless, many companies developing self-driving cars say they will be ready to go in 3-5 years.  For example, the Renault-Nissan CEO, Carlos Ghoson recently announced they will have a fully autonomous car ready by 2020 and took CNBC journalists on a test ride in a self-driving Nissan Leaf to demonstrate.

During the ride, Ghoson notes, "One of the biggest problems is people with bicycles, because they don't respect any rule usually." Uh oh. Does this mean self-driving cars are incompatible with cyclists and pedestrians?  Ghoson's comment suggests cyclists and pedestrians are doomed to an afterthought existence in the self-driving car future. I'm tempted to call him an idiot, but I won't. Instead, I will point out how his comment reveals the narrow minded car-centric thinking of people controlling our transportation system, and why self-driving cars are going to fix all that.

Ghoson is correct that some cyclists don't respect the rules of the road, but guess who rarely, if ever, respect rules of the road?  If you don't know the answer to this question consider the last time you drove the actual posted speed limit, refrained from using your phone while driving, fully stopped at a stop sign, paid attention to the No Turn On Red sign, failed to use your turn signal, etc.  If the self-driving car engineers can build technology to function safely with human driven cars on the road, I have great confidence they can figure out how to handle cyclists.

This highlights the great appeal of self-driving cars. They will create dramatically safer roads for everyone by removing human error from the equation. Unless you are a first responder or have lost a loved one in an accident, we easily forget how dangerous automobiles are.  In the U.S. more than 30,000 people are killed every year in traffic accidents and 94% of them are caused by human errorGlobally, more than 1 million people are killed in traffic accidents every year.  Self-driving cars, while not perfect, yet, have the potential to eliminate many of these fatalities.  

How can anyone argue this is not a good thing?  There is the understandable fear of a new technology, but previous generations have proven our ability to adapt to trains, cars, airplanes, airplanes with autopilot, and for some, and certainly more, spaceships.  Another point of resistance is that some people actually enjoy driving. Don't worry, nobody is talking about making human driven cars illegal (yet) and even though you'll be moving at the posted speed limit in your self-driving car,  you won't notice because you'll be doing other things like working, reading the news, watching a movie, talking or texting on the phone, eating, sleeping, etc.  If the concern is that you won't be able to drive really fast, do everyone else on the road a favor and find a private race track, and don't wait another 3-5 years to do it.

Not only are self-driving cars going to make driving safer, they are going to make riding a bike and walking safer and more enjoyable.  Sharing the roads with self-driving cars won't be the fight for survival and right to exist that it often is with human driven cars.  Instead, cars will be moving at posted speed limits, and will only pass when safe and at programed safe distances.  The worry about being hit from behind, clipped from side, or having a front row seat to a head on collision will be no more. Perhaps the greatest change of all is that drivers will be so focused on doing other things (safely) they won't even notice cyclists are there, so there will be little to no unpleasant confrontations between cyclists and drivers. It may be too much to hope that adolescent males in trucks, self-driving or otherwise, will cease to yell stupid things at cyclists.

There will be a transition with human driven vehicles continuing to be on the road, but as self-driving cars become more common, a dramatic improvement in cycling and pedestrian infrastructure will follow.  The "Share the Road" approach will be much more difficult when self-driving cars stubbornly refuse to put pedestrians and cyclists at risk, forcing planners and engineers to reconsider the importance of sidewalks and bike lanes.  The alternative will be painfully slow moving traffic in areas with considerable bicycle and pedestrian use (most urban areas).  Cyclists and pedestrians will no longer be expected to shoulder the burden of unsafe roads.

Perhaps I'm overly optimistic. I may just need something positive to think about every time a human operating a car puts my life in danger to send a text or try to get somewhere a couple seconds faster. It's hard to imagine how a world of self-driving cars could be worse. 



  

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