It's déjà vu all over again as the forces of driverless motordom try to push pedestrians and cyclists off the road.
We have written many times about how in the 1920s pedestrians were pushed off the roads in favour of the car. Carlton Reid writes in his new book Bike Boom about how the automobile interests invented “jaywalking” to get pedestrians off the street.
“Motordom”… went on to develop a masterful, coordinated campaign to redefine what – and who – streets were for. Cyclists were labelled as “jay-cyclers” – a name that didn’t catch on – but they too came to be seen as illegitimate users of the roads supposedly built for motorists.
And now it is déjà vu all over again as Motordom, in the form of proponents of self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs), girds for battle again. In January, Carlton Reid wrote that Makers of driverless cars want cyclists and pedestrians off the roads. He quotes Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn, who says pesky cyclists "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."
In the Guardian, Laura Laker describes Street wars 2035: can cyclists and driverless cars ever co-exist? She worries that, because AVs are designed to recognize and not run over pedestrians or cyclists, chaos will ensue.
Robin Hickman, a reader in transport and city planning at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning, believes this makes driverless cars “unworkable” on busy urban streets. “In terms of the algorithm for dealing with obstacles that move in unpredictable ways, like cyclists or pedestrians, I would say that’s unsolvable,” says Hickman. “If a pedestrian knows it’s an automated vehicle, they will just take the priority. It would take you hours to drive down a street in any urban area.”
Proposed solutions include RFID beacons built into bicycles to warn AVs (and perhaps our cellphones, talking to lamp posts and cars, as we showed a few years ago) or criminalizing walking in front of cars, which would take a photo and send it to the police department, who “will come and arrest you for annoying an autonomous vehicle.”
Others think it might mean a return to grade separated roads, as I suggested in my post Will self-driving cars lead to grade-separated cities?
Given these challenges, experts including Hickman and Levinson believe segregation and AV-only roads are inevitable. But wouldn’t that risk a return to the urban dystopia of the 1960s and 70s, when planners crisscrossed cities with elevated highways and erected barriers around roads with the aim of improving safety?
Certainly the forces of Motordom are strong and are clearly winning;
Hickman believes “the case is overwhelming against AVs” but fears the powerful motor industry lobby means there is so much private and government money already at stake that the rise of driverless cars would be hard to stop.
Cool.... Our public transportation system is broken and you're doing nothing— eve peyser (@evepeyser) June 14, 2017
Witness New York state this week, where Governor Cuomo rolled out the welcome mat for Audi self-driving cars while the New York subway system (which he is responsible for) is falling apart. Priorities.
Janette Sadik-Khan also chimes in on AVs. The former New York City transportation commissioner now is chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and says people should be asking, “What is the city that you want to be?”
“There’s a lot of interest and people tend to get distracted by this shiny new toy,” she says. “Let’s make sure that is the focus – creating the city that we want to have – and not looking at the technology as the be all and end all. There are some exciting possibilities with autonomous vehicles but I think we need to remember what makes a great city, and that’s really about the people, not the cars.”
There are many who believe that AVs will be great for cities, that "with the right planning, they offer the potential for a better quality of life, economic growth, improved health and broader social connections, by offering convenient and affordable mobility to all of us, regardless of where we live, our age or ability to drive."
But like the Cycling Professor, I am becoming skeptical.