Will life be better in the saddle when no-one’s behind the wheel?

Cycling in the age of driverless cars

Craig Richards

Law, Science and technology, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

22 June 2018

Can autonomous vehicles exist safely alongside cyclists? Craig Richards writes that speed limits, car numbers, and where cars are allowed to stop will be where the rubber hits the road.

While flying cars are as far away as ever, driverless cars are promising to revolutionise transport in only a few short years. Trials on roads are happening now and the date for widespread implementation keeps getting closer.

Meanwhile, the bicycle continues to prove that sometimes yesterday’s solutions can solve tomorrow’s problems. Many cities around the world are turning to pedal power to move people because it’s convenient, economical and space efficient. Of course, an added bonus is preventing the horrible diseases caused by physical inactivity.

Despite the obvious advantages, many people are hesitant to get on their bike. The Portland Model shows that 60 per cent of people are ‘interested but concerned’ about riding a bike. What they’re most concerned about is the severe consequences of being struck by a heavy vehicle at high speed.

In all the excitement surrounding autonomous vehicles, not much attention has been paid to the impact on bike riders. We need to ask whether having no-one behind the wheel will reduce the concern for people itching to jump on a bike.

There are four key questions to think about. Will cars without humans in control hit fewer bike riders? Will there be more cars on the road? Will there be more cars in dangerous interactions with bike riders? Will cars go faster?

More on this: Singapore in pole position with driverless cars

Over three quarters of bike rider crashes are caused by a person driving a vehicle. Drivers are human and humans make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes are careless, sometimes they’re negligent and sometimes it’s even worse.

By placing the responsibility in the hands of a machine with predetermined formulas and predictable driving patterns, the number of bike riders being hit by a car should be reduced.

However, driverless car technology is struggling to detect bike riders. Bikes are more dynamic and nimble – small and fast in urban environments but slow on open roads. They can move between cars and between the footpath and road too. Once the technology is perfected, it’ll also be important to program the cars so that if a crash is inevitable, hitting a less protected road user is the last resort.

There are conflicting opinions on whether autonomous cars will reduce the number of vehicles on the road. One thing is clear though: the number of occupants per car will fall even further. In fact, it’s expected that the average number of people in a car will fall as cars drop off their owner and either circle waiting to pick them up or return to home base.

There’s one theory that car ownership will plummet as more people carpool and share cars, Uber-style. I’m not so sure. Humans love their creature comforts and status items. Having your own car decked out so you can watch a movie, grab a nap or do some work sounds like a sweet way to ride home and a great way to impress your friends.

The one thing that is clear is that unless the size of the car shrinks (which seems unlikely), 100 driverless cars will take up the same amount of space on the road as 100 cars with humans behind the wheel. Which makes it unlikely there’ll be more space on the road for bike riders.

Of great concern is where autonomous cars will be on the road. The keynote speaker at a recent conference said that driverless cars will be able to efficiently negotiate quiet back streets. This will be a disaster for bike riders who choose the safety of back streets to avoid tangling with two tonnes of metal.

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The drop off will be another issue. With the driverless car, there’ll be no need to struggle to find an expensive car park in crowded areas like the city.

No doubt this will mean more curbside, out front drop-offs. More people popping in and out of vehicles on the side of the road is bad news for bike riders.

Speed could also be a worry. Computers should have shorter, more decisive reaction times than distracted humans. Therefore, autonomous cars could be programmed to go faster with less crash risk.

We’ll need our decision-makers to stand strong. If they buckle to the inevitable call to increase speed limits, it’s going to dissuade people from riding bikes. We must never forget that if a person is hit by a vehicle travelling 60 kilometres per hour they have a 1 in 10 chance of surviving. But if that vehicle is going only 30 kilometres per hour they have a 9 in 10 chance of surviving.

Yes, autonomous cars don’t get distracted, so once the technology is perfected they should be better at not hitting bike riders. But when humans are no longer steering the car, we could end up with more cars on the road, going faster, in more dangerous areas. That’ll mean an even more intimidating road environment, which will increase the concern of those holding off on joining the pedal-powered revolution.

Of course, the best solution is to get cars off the road and up in the air. But until the day of the flying car finally comes, we need to provide attractive places to ride bikes separate from vehicles. Where separation isn’t possible, we’ll need to tightly control speed limits, the number of cars on quiet streets and where cars can stop.

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