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.
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.