Emily Badger recently wrote in Atlantic Cities about work being done to develop an autonomous car, showing this amazing video:
David Alpert disagrees, and writes, also in Atlantic Cities: "But what's missing from this diagram? How about... people?"
We won’t need traffic lights at all (or stop signs, for that matter). Traffic will constantly flow, and at a rate that would probably unnerve the average human driver. The researchers have modeled just how this would work, as you can see in the animation
below.[above.] You have to admit the patterns are mesmerizing even if the whole idea still seems far-fetched. The yellow cars pausing at the intersection in this simulation are old-timey human-driven vehicles that haven’t yet caught up with the future.
He suggests that this will lead to new conflicts between pedestrians and cars, even if the cars are smart enough to avoid hitting people:
If autonomous cars travel much faster than today's cars and operate closer to other vehicles and obstacles, as we see in the Texas team's simulation, then they may well kill more pedestrians. Or, perhaps the computers controlling them will respond so quickly that they can avoid hitting any pedestrian, even one who steps out in front of a car.
In that case, 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.
He also complains that the video shows six lanes in each direction. But it doesn't have to be like that. Other planners and designers have a completely different idea of where the car is going; at The Institute Without Boundaries, In their Beyond The Car project, the Autonomous Car might well be smaller, lighter and slower, which it can be and still get you there faster because you are not stuck in traffic or at red lights.
There is no reason that the pedestrian and the cyclist cannot be a recognized part of the transportation system either, like in the Libelium system where everybody knows where everything and everybody else is.
Having spent a bit of time as an advisor to the Institute Without Boundaries' Sustainable Transportation Charrette, I think that David Alpert has taken an overly simplistic video and produced an overly simplistic response.
As a cyclist, I look forward to autonomous cars that actually pay attention to who is around them, that go at the speed limit and don't make right hand turns without looking in the mirror. There are also some other side effects that will be so positive for cities and suburbs alike; as noted in Beyond the Car: Envisioning a New "Sustainable Mobility Vehicle", they will likely be shared, smaller, lighter, slower, and there will likely be about a tenth as many of them. That is something that everyone can benefit from.