Are We Doomed to Repeat History with Automated Vehicles?

09 Oct 2018

Tony Arnold

Automated Vehicles (AVs), otherwise known as Driverless Cars, are likely to arrive in the next decade, bringing with them a raft of changes to the way we move around cities. Some pundits predict that, because AVs will be programmed to protect humans, people will deliberately walk and cycle in front of cars, exercising their dominion over these new, subservient vehicles. If so, automobile travel would be hampered, potentially allowing walking and cycling to reclaim the public space gradually lost to the motor vehicle over the past century.

While this vision (a utopia to some and a nightmare to others) sounds plausible, there is little evidence in the history of the motor vehicle to suggest that AVs will make cities more friendly for walking and cycling (although perhaps not so many will die). In fact, the introduction of AVs may simply repeat the history of the motor vehicle, with public space once again cleared to make way for people travelling in cars at the expense of people who are walking and cycling.

Studies have anticipated that AVs will be able to make better use of road networks than human-driven vehicles by travelling closer together, by making more efficient route choices and by communicating with each other1. This may suggest that traffic congestion will disappear, however, studies have also found that the number of vehicle kms travelled is likely to increase significantly2, suggesting that we may just end up with roads that are even more saturated with motor vehicles.

Traffic simulations predict that AVs will interleave seamlessly at intersections without the need to stop for traffic lights, however these simulations conveniently ignore the rights of people to walk and cycle in this mechanised future. Technology companies (always keen to find a technology solution to a problem) have proposed that people will use mobile apps that operate as beacons to alert AVs of our presence. This approach sounds futuristic and exciting, however, it creates a world where everything that moves, including children, dogs and native wildlife, will need to emit a beacon to ensure their safety.

For insight into the likely impact of AVs on walking and cycling, it may be instructive to examine the first pedestrian fatality involving an AV which occured in March 2018. The preliminary report from the NTSB found that, despite the pedestrian being detected around 6 seconds before the crash, the vehicle did not take any steps to avoid the collision. Some reports have suggested that the software had been “tuned” to be less sensitive to objects on the road so that ride quality was better for passengers. This prioritisation of occupant comfort over the safety of people who are walking and cycling is a concerning development, but is unsurprising.

While Uber’s automated vehicles currently utilise a human operator to monitor performance and intervene if necessary, the system was not designed to alert the operator when intervention may be required. The assumption that a vehicle operator (who is mostly passive) can be relied upon to intervene when necessary has always been questionable, given the likelihood for distraction. In this case, it has turned out to be fatal, with reports indicating that the Uber operator was watching TV before the crash.

If roads are dominated by computer-controlled vehicles, then the only type of transport that will be controlled by humans will be walking and cycling. It is therefore likely that road safety messaging and Police enforcement will focus more heavily on walking and cycling as they struggle to remain relevant in an automated world. Given that the choice to cycle in Australia and the US has already been cast as a brave and somewhat foolhardy endeavour, an increased focus on the dangers of walking and cycling by safety agencies is likely to further marginalise these healthy forms of transport.

We have two paths ahead. Down one path, we cede more public space to the automobile and fence off roadways to prevent pedestrians from ruining the highly-efficient streams of automated vehicles (an approach somewhat akin to the introduction of jaywalking laws 100 years ago). Down the other path, we reprioritise public space to favour walking and cycling, thereby improving the liveability of our cities and the health of its inhabitants.

The choice is up to us.

  1. Fagnant D, Kockelman K (2015), Preparing a nation for autonomous vehicles: opportunities, barriers and policy recommendations
  2. Truong LT, De Gruyter C, Currie G, Delbosc A (2017), Estimating the trip generation impacts of autonomous vehicles on car travel in Victoria, Australia