Here we are: drivers versus cyclists, round three. Round one was won by drivers when they managed to get exclusive use of American roads. This trend was not unique to America; in many countries around the world, cars became the dominant form of transportation. But, I am located in America, so I will use it as an example of automotive decadence.
For many years, the concept of local travel was synonymous with driving. Going out meant going somewhere in a car. It was assumed. And it was a cultural victory for drivers.
Round two was won by cyclists, when modern trends towards fitness and environmentalism provided the impetus people needed to choose to ride bikes for transportation. This trend drove demand for bicycle infrastructure which created a place for bicycles on the road.
With this move, the concept of local travel became open-ended. While one mode of transportation, driving, was dominant, it did not preclude the possibility of other modes of traveling. This made cycling and other alternative forms of travel more legitimate, even if they were less popular modes of transport. In this way, a cultural victory was won for cyclists who wanted to take their rightful place on the roads.
Two rounds, a victory for each side. So what is round three? Cars without drivers.
Yes, you read that correctly. Even if it’s still far off, why not think about it now? Imagination and a view to the future are positive attributes.
At the rate technology is advancing, it won’t be long before drivers become obsolete. Cars already have on-board computers. Some cars can monitor oil quality and alert drivers if the oil needs to be changed. Others display diagnostic codes, which give the driver valuable information about the mechanical status of the car.
As cars become more aware of themselves, and their state of mechanical functioning, it’s only a matter of time before they will be successfully programmed to drive on their own. And this may not be a scary as it sounds.
Familiar names are already associated with this emerging technology. Google, for instance, has a driverless car project dedicated to developing the technology necessary to make driverless cars a reality.
Google’s driverless car system’s main feature is a laser range finder mounted on the roof of the car. In addition, the car has four radars, mounted on the front and rear bumpers, which give the car long-range vision for dealing with fast traffic on highways. It also has a camera near the rear-view mirror for detecting traffic lights, a GPS, inertial measurement unit, and wheel encoder. These features tell the car where it’s located and help it to keep track of its movements relative to other traffic.
The project’s results to date are impressive. Their driverless cars can drive on a complex course at high speed, and have proven themselves in traffic as well.
When this technology becomes commercially available, it will change the way things are done on the roads. Initially, only a few cars will be self-driven. This will leave us with a combination of human drivers, driverless cars and cyclists sharing the roads.
Cyclists will have less to fear from the driverless cars. These cars have multiple sensors and are aware of objects on all sides. A car of this type would sense a cyclist in its vicinity.
It will not be distracted by other activities or angry with the cyclist. This will be an improvement over what cyclists face now. Presently, cyclists are at the mercy of poor driving skills, texting drivers, and human error. A computerized system will eliminate these problems.
However, they will still face the problem of cars with drivers interacting with both driverless cars and cyclists. These drivers may be even more distracted by the novelty of sharing the road with driverless cars. The strangeness of it all might cause some drivers to make more mistakes and even have more accidents.
This would be the result of interacting with cars without the human element. Today, much of driving is social. Drivers watch each other and signal to each other in other to coordinate their actions. Interacting with a driverless car will be very different because there will be no social cues to convey the other vehicle’s intentions.
How will a driver know when an oncoming driverless car intends to turn left? Normal human cues will be absent. But, other cues may be present.
A driverless car, unlike a driver, will probably remain stationary until it is ready to begin the turn. It will not ease into a turn the way a human does. Observing such things will teach drivers what to expect from a driverless car.
A lot of rear-ending might also take place. Driverless cars will not go through a yellow light if their calculation predicts insufficient time to reach the other side of an intersection before the light turns red. Many drivers would run through the same light; predicting vehicle behavior will, therefore, become more complex.
Cyclists will also be affected by these changes. They will have two types of cars to deal with: driver controlled and driverless. Some practice will be required for learning to identify which type of vehicle one is dealing with.
Marking driverless cars would make it easier for other vehicles to interact with them, particularly at the beginning when they will be a minority on the roads. And some education about these new vehicles, for all road users, would probably be in order.
One other concern cyclists might have is in the area of liability. All of our present laws make the operator of a vehicle legally responsible for any harm he or she might cause through negligent driving. No laws exist for how to hold someone accountable for the actions taken by a computerized vehicle.
It’s hard enough for cyclists to hold drivers accountable for their injuries, even when it’s clear that the driver is at fault. What will happen if one of these driverless cars miscalculates, due to its inability to understand how cyclists ride, and hits a cyclist? Can the vehicle owner be held accountable? How about the manufacturer of the automated driving system?
Ultimately, motor vehicle operation would be safer if a well designed automated driving system controlled all of the cars on the roads. The transition to this state will be the problem.
For a time, roads will be confusing places. And cyclists will have to be even more vigilant than they are now. But, it will pay off in the end because one less cyclist-hating driver on the road is one less nightmare for cyclists to contend with.