Will pedestrians and cyclists bully self-driving cars?

woman walking in front of self driving car

A fascinating study has come out of the University of California, Santa Cruz; Adam Millard-Ball writes in the Journal of Planning Education and Research about how in a world full of self-driving cars, pedestrians may have the run of the street and be able to do whatever they want, since the self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs) will give them right of way. Now, even though walking people often have the right of way now in intersections, they tend to yield to cars. Millard-Ball explains:

Pedestrians know that drivers typically have no interest in running them down. So why not simply step out into the street and assert the right of way? In part, because they also know that there is a small probability that the driver is inattentive, intoxicated, or sociopathic, or that the vehicle may be unable to stop in time.

But AVs are another story. they are programmed to follow the rules and watch out for pedestrians. “In turn, safer cars provoke a rational response by pedestrians and other road users. Secure in the knowledge that a car will yield, pedestrians can cross with impunity.”

This creates a problem for the fans of AVs, who are already writing headlines like Pedestrians may run rampant in a world of self-driving cars and Humans Will Bully Mild-Mannered Autonomous Cars. Because we cannot have bullying pedestrians running rampant. However when you read the actual study, you find that Millard-Ball offers alternate scenarios that do not all involve bullying.

City of Tornto signno fun here!/CC BY 2.0

Using game theory and “crosswalk chicken”, Millard-Ball concludes that in the suburbs, with low-volume traffic, AVs and humans might co-exist quite nicely in the roads, sharing the space. Kids might play in traffic and parents won’t worry. Cities could take down all those no ball-playing and hockey signs.

However in the denser parts of the city, the situation changes. There are a number of scenarios, including:

Pedestrian Supremacy:

The first scenario envisages urban environments where pedestrians, and perhaps bicycles, dominate. Pedestrians know that autonomous vehicles will behave cautiously in their presence, which generates a self-reinforcing process. Pedestrian activity slows down autonomous vehicles, especially on non-arterial streets, which in turn makes walking a quicker alternative for more trips. Because it is difficult for autonomous vehicles to penetrate the heart of urban neighborhoods, they tend to drop off their occupants on an arterial road at the edge, before heading to a peripheral parking facility. This enables further increase in urban density, which again contributes to higher pedestrian activity.

Regulatory Response:

In this scenario, policy makers react to the impunity shown by pedestrians with a combination of regulatory changes, physical design, and enforcement. Laws are changed to reduce pedestrian priority, for example, by eliminating unmarked crosswalks at intersections. Physical barriers in the form of fences between the sidewalk and roadway are erected to corral pedestrian traffic along busy streets, marking a return to the mid-20th century street designs that emphasize segregation of road users. Enforcement action against jaywalkers and similar violators is stepped up, and legislation specifies that an autonomous vehicle manufacturer is not liable for any collision where a pedestrian was unlawfully present in the roadway.

Guess which one is more likely. This was foreseen a few years ago, with David Alpert writing about how drivers will react.

We might see a small number of people taking advantage of that to cross through traffic, knowing the cars can't kill him. That will slow the cars down, and their drivers will start lobbying for even greater restrictions on pedestrians, like fences preventing midblock crossings.

View down on Futuramatechnology almanac/ Separated streets in Futurama/via

I have even suggested a return to the kind of planning seen in Hong Kong and originally proposed by Norman Bel Geddes at Futurama, where elevated walkways separate people from cars. (Not like Calgary or Minneapolis where it is done because of the weather).

where is it safe to crossCopenhagenize/via

David Rushkoff has written about how when it comes down to the interests of drivers vs pedestrians, the driver always wins; it’s economics, which is why we will see a new kind of anti-jaywalking campaign.

Now that we live in an automobile culture, it's only natural that our leading technologists seek transportation solutions that build on the automobile. After all, they are more expensive (and thus profitable) to manufacture than any sort of mass transit, and their costs are externalized to individual consumers, who see them as high-tech status symbols rather than financial obligations.

Pedestrian fences in LondonGoogle Maps/ Pedestrian fences in London/via

When push comes to shove (and it will) the cars will get the roads, and the pedestrians will get jaywalking tickets, fences, bridges and underpasses. That’s just the way it works.

Tags: Cities | Self-driving car | Urban Life | Urban Planning


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