"Get off the road!" That will be the siren call from driverless cars of the future.

Makers of driverless cars want cyclists and pedestrians off the roads

The advent of driverless cars will mean an end to the 100-year-old carnage on the road, with pedestrians and cyclists now safe on the streets thanks to tech. Another view of the future is that in a city where driverless cars are programmed to avoid cyclists and pedestrians these cars wouldn’t be able to move for all of the cyclists and pedestrians riding and walking in front of them. 

It’s this second view that is clearly exercising the patience of Renault chief executive, Carlos Ghosn. Introducing a concept driverless car he told CBNC that the arrival of the technology could be delayed by pesky cyclists who, he said, "don’t respect any rules usually."

Ghosn worries that driverless cars have a cycle-shaped hurdle to leap: "One of the biggest problems is people with bicycles. The car is confused by [cyclists] because from time-to-time they behave like pedestrians and from time-to-time they behave like cars."

(Last year in America a cyclist hanging at an intersection on a fixed-wheel bicycle found that a Google driverless car in front of him wouldn’t budge because of his nudging to and fro in order to balance.)

It’s highly likely that other car manufacturers may also wish to clip the wings of cyclists and other non-motorised road users. 

Marjan Hagenzieker, professor of road safety at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, told a Dutch news site in December last year that the unpredictability of cyclists "throws a spanner in the work of technology optimists" because "robots are not good at dealing with inconsistent behaviour."

Savvy cyclists, who know they will be safe in front of a computer-controlled car, will have little incentive to cede priority. "Some will be careful with an autonomous car in traffic; others less so in the expectation that the car brakes by itself," said Hagenzieker.

Some British bicycle advocates believe that the advent of driverless cars will usher in a golden age for cycling because provision will have to be made for cyclists away from the roads used by driverless cars. However, even in the Netherlands protected bicycle infrastructure hasn’t been installed everywhere, and cyclists still sometimes have to mix with motorised traffic. 

Jason Torrance, policy director at Sustrans, reminds car makers that roads aren’t just for cars.

"Advocates of driverless cars often forget that people live next to roads and use them regularly, so safety must be prioritised especially when normal unpredictable and legal human behaviour comes into contact with driverless machines," said Torrance.

In the early 20th century, motorists didn’t monopolise the streets of cities overnight, they had to fight to suppress the road rights of slower users, muscling cyclists and pedestrians out of the way by killing them or frightening them half to death, and creating the new offence of “jaywalking”.

Google has a patent for a driverless-cars warning system which starts by flashing polite messages on a screen before escalating to increasingly more insistent audible warnings. Perhaps a future patent will suggest driverless cars come equipped with “pedestrian paddles" to nudge human-shaped road users out of the way?

If the siren call from driverless cars of the future is "get off our road!" cynics would argue that such cars won’t be that different from many of the drivers they replace.


There’s more on the interaction between driverless cars and cyclists – from me – on the Island Press blog.

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