Driverless Cars Are Just Down the Road

One transportation trend likely to make lots of news in 2017 is driverless cars. Every major auto company is working on this plus tech giants like Google and ride sharing companies like Uber. And limited automated technology, like cars that park themselves or stay in their own lanes on highways, is already available.

But what about completely self-driving cars? How will they impact (or ideally not impact) cyclists?

We’re cautiously optimistic. After all, 94% of all crashes are caused by driver error. And with over 30,000 people being killed each year in the U.S. in vehicle crashes the chance to save 90% of those lives is something to ponder.

But there do seem to be some specific issues regarding how the driverless technology detects and manages interactions with bikes and pedestrians. And Uber in particular has been unnecessarily cavalier in its actions. Last month the company raised the hackles of our friends at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition when it pushed ahead with testing in that city even though it knew that the technology was not necessarily safe around bikes. In addition, California regulators including the state’s attorney general are threatening court action against Uber for moving ahead without their approval.

Self-driving technology is coming on fast.

There’s no question that Uber should back down and do this right. If it takes a little longer to get the technology squared away so that everyone is safe, than that’s a small price to pay. On this we’re completely with the SF Biking Coalition.

But in the long run automated vehicles are coming and it could be a good thing. In fact, a Bike Fed analysis of the ten Wisconsin bicycle fatalities in 2016 found that at least half of them might have been prevented by driverless cars. And in 2015 it appears that perhaps 11 out of 15 cycling deaths could have been prevented.

I think in particular of Shelton Berel and Cynthia Arsnow. Both were killed within weeks of each other last summer in Dane County. Shelton was out training one early morning when he was struck and killed by Kevin Meister, who has been charged with hit and run and reckless homicide. Police reports indicate that Meister may have been impaired at the time of the crash. And Cynthia was killed by a driver who admitted at the scene that he had been distracted while looking down at some papers.

Driverless cars don’t use drugs, they don’t drink and drive (a huge problem in Wisconsin), they aren’t distracted by papers or cell phones, and they aren’t prone to road rage.

Yet, there is a lot of skepticism out there about this technology. Some of that is healthy as there clearly are still some unanswered and important questions. But it’s also clear that pretty much all of us have an unrealistically expansive view of our own abilities behind the wheel. We all believe that we are, as the character in the movie Rain Man liked to say, “excellent drivers.”

So, there’s a lot to think about here. The Bike Fed, in partnership with the UW’s Department of Urban & Regional Planning is working on a conference to explore this in more detail. Look for more details on that later this winter.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

5 thoughts on “Driverless Cars Are Just Down the Road

  1. There is a new troubling narrative about self driving cars: that they are TOO safe and will encourage people walking and biking to leap into traffic to cross the street, knowing that a self driving car will stop. You can read or listen to story from NPR on this issue here:
    The reporter does not seem to understand what the basic laws are and that people have the right of way at all crosswalks (with or without paint). Cars should always stop for people crossing the street, even if they are breaking the law and crossing against a light. Having people be able to walk safely and as a prioritized form of transportation is a GOOD thing not a negative. Sorry people in cars if your travel time is slowed.
    And there is the issue of self driving cars and their ability to operate with bike and bike lanes.”On my colleague’s brief demo of an autonomous vehicle last Monday,” said SFBC communications director Chris Cassidy in an email to The Register, “the vehicle twice made an illegal and unsafe right-hook-style turn through bike lanes.” Uber just started experimenting with self-driving rides in the city.

    • There’s a fascinating issue here about the moral decisions that will have to be programmed into driverless cars. There’s just an endless number of really interesting questions surrounding this technology. I remain, on balance, a big driverless car advocate but I certainly acknowledge the good questions being asked about them.

  2. 94% of car crashes are caused by operator error. They are not “accidents.” Every driver’s license registration should come with the requirement for the applicant to write this down, by hand, 100 times. Then cars should be programmed to repeat this every time the ignition is turned on.

    Beyond that, the driverless car debate can borrow some ideas from Just War Theory. In war, you have combatants and noncombatants. A rifleman, for instance, should not shoot an unarmed civilian, because that person is not a combatant. Not part of the game. There is essentially a mutual decision for soldiers that they have to limit themselves to killing only each other.

    Driverless cars should also make this distinction. If you are in a car, you have entered the game and become a “combatant.” The car has the ability to kill, so the occupant of the car has thereby agreed to become a target and can likewise be killed. A cyclist or pedestrian, however, is a “noncombatant” and has no ability to join in the bloodshed. As such, it is immoral for a car to kill the cyclist or pedestrian.

    There is a moral justification, through mutual agreement, for cars and drivers to kill and injure each other. There is no moral justification for cars and drivers to kill cyclists and pedestrians. That our society usually views this in the opposite direction -”I, as the car operator, am bigger, armed, and protected with armor so it is acceptable to harm you” – shows how sick our civilization has become. The same people who are horrified by civilian atrocities and terrorism will laugh off a driver who mows down a young child or old woman in a crosswalk.

    Running someone over is messed up. Most people have so much money and self-esteem tied up in their cars that they sacrifice human decency in the process. Driverless cars should remove, not encourage, this moral blindness.

    • Cyclists risk their safety, and supply great effort in the course of doing a strong Good for humanity. To say that running someone over is “messed up” is the understatement of the year. The cowardly and irresponsible act, by lazy scum, of potentially causing severe injury or death to an actor whose actions are so noble is unforgivable… and a company whose morality is to protect lazy passengers, safe inside their steel cage, while risking the lives of conscientious, anonymous saviors of the atmosphere is a company whose motives are questionable beyond a moment’s profit. What other lapses of judgement are also slipped into this murder-mobile???

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