Should Cyclists Fear the Rise of the Robot Car?
Rapha x Killik & Co
Guest content by Rapha for Killik & Co. Words by Laura Laker.
An AV is a car, van, bus or truck capable of navigating and responding to its environment with limited or no input from any human occupants. AVs are graded on a 0-5 scale of autonomy: Level 0 is a 20-year-old Ford Fiesta; 3 still requires a driver but takes command of all safety-critical functions in certain traffic conditions; 5 is fully autonomous, with no driver at the wheel (because there is no wheel).
As a result, the theory goes, there will be better traffic flow and less need to expand major road networks. And if AV ride-sharing is adopted en masse, it is thought that many of us will give up our private cars, further reducing vehicle traffic.
Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of the trailblazing car manufacturer Tesla Inc., has said that one day AVs will be as common as elevators, and as safe. “It’ll be an order of magnitude safer than a person [driving a car],” he told a technology conference in 2015.
Failing that, we await the decisions of governments around the world, who are still assessing the viability of the AV on the open road. AV companies are looking to unleash Level 4, highly autonomous vehicles, by the end of next year, with full Level 5 automation by 2020 or 2021. That seems optimistic; Level 3 AVs require a human driver to intervene at the controls in trickier scenarios, but there is evidence that humans become over-reliant on the technology and fail to respond appropriately when needed, i.e steering the vehicle through a complex scenario involving cyclists and pedestrians.
To put the task of the AV developers in context, it’s thought a fully autonomous vehicle will require 50 times the processing power used to process the data generated by advanced driver assistance systems, such as lane assistance, fitted in many current traditional cars. So let’s put it another way: AVs are a problem for cyclists.
The company set to work on everything from detecting unicyclists to deciphering cyclists’ hand signals. It has even mocked up a cityscape 100 miles east of California’s Silicon Valley to test its vehicles. Waymo is also considering cyclist tagging, either via smartphone apps or electronic devices. But this supposes every cyclist has a fully charged phone or that the bike’s electronic tag is working.
Musk claims a fully autonomous Tesla will be ready in 2018 but that regulatory approval may take up to a further three years. Government legislation around the world currently holds back the march of AVs. The public are uncertain too: in a recent survey by the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers 66% of drivers said they would be uncomfortable travelling at 70mph in a driverless vehicle.
Last summer Musk tweeted he had “verbal government approval” for a superfast underground ‘hyperloop’ between New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC; it turned out to be hot air but it illustrated the ambition in this area. Jaworzno in Poland, for instance, is considering turning a former railroad track into a hyperloop test track as part of plans to make the entire city an autonomous car zone. In this scenario there is a risk that legislators will yield to the temptation to rule obstruction of AVs, whether by cyclists or pedestrians, an offence.
But traffic does not create great cities. As Woolsgrove puts it: “Public authorities are looking to shift from private motorised transport to walking, to cycling, to public transport, whereas driverless car manufacturers are looking to provide easier access to on-demand private transport.”
The appeal of promoting widespread urban cycling is evident: public health is enhanced, congestion is reduced, air quality is improved. According to Robin Hickman, reader in transport and city planning at University College London: “The case is overwhelming for increasing cycle-mode share to 30% or more in urban areas. That takes 20 or 30 years of consistent investment.”
It might be a while before the bicycle and the autonomous vehicle happily share the same road. Watch this space.
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