Why should I feel safe around autonomous vehicles?
Technology and Business
In this article, we consider the people outside AVs, and ask:
- How will AVs interact with human drivers and user-driven vehicles?
- Will self-driving cars make towns and cities safer for pedestrians?
- Are designated ‘driverless corridors’ the solution to safety fears?
As the tech behind autonomous vehicles continues to become more sophisticated, and self-driving vehicles advance along the SAE’s all-important scale of automation, one question seems to linger: can we feel safe around AVs? Though we know driverless cars have the potential to navigate roads more safely than user-driven ones, basically handing over one’s life to a machine naturally remains a big talking point for consumers. And as we know, without acceptance, there will be no market and no mass rollout for AVs.
Conversation, therefore, tends to revolve around whether existing drivers will happily switch to automated travel. Studies show that, for example, around half of the UK population is still hesitant to using the tech. At 2025AD, we think there is a bigger question to be explored here. After all, it’s not just the people riding in AVs who will see change with the advent of mass driverless travel.
What about the human drivers still on the road?
What about pedestrians?
Moving to a mixed traffic environment
Our driverless future won’t arrive, fully formed, on one date across the globe.
However, according to a recent survey, as many as 53% of drivers feel unsafe sharing a road with self-driving vehicles. In addition, a 2014 study revealed that a mixed traffic environment may have a negative behavioural effect on drivers. Testing how drivers reacted to platooning AVs, this research found that participants displayed a significantly shorter average and minimum time headway alongside AVs, essentially meaning they drove closer to AVs than would be deemed safe.
So while platooning is seen as key to keeping traffic flowing – especially as some predict the ease of autonomous travel will push the number of cars on the road up – it may have unintended consequences when it comes to the safety of other drivers. Should those platooning vehicles suddenly stop, for example, human reaction times would just not be good enough to avoid collision.
A solution may lie in the separation of autonomous and user-driven vehicles. Michigan in the US, for example, has announced that it will create separate lanes for autonomous vehicles. Aiming to create ‘driverless corridors’ serving particularly busy stretches of road, Governor Gretchen Whitmer says this approach will, “help increase the safety, efficiency, resilience and operations of roadways in the not-so-distant future.” Ultimately, it seems that to ensure the safety of human drivers, AVs and UVs may need to be separated on our roads.
Another important group in this safety conversation is pedestrians. In our current environment, roads are becoming increasingly dangerous for people on foot as the standard make-up of our road network sidelines pedestrians while the volume of vehicles on the road continues to grow. In almost every country in the world, it remains more dangerous per mile of travel to be on foot than in a vehicle. Whether that will change with the arrival of driverless technology remains to be seen.
We know AVs will make towns and cities safer for pedestrians in some senses – we’ve spoken before about how access to self-driving transport should decrease incidence of drink driving and crime in built-up areas. But there is no denying that mass autonomous travel would create new obstacles to exploring cities on foot.
Platooning vehicles, for example, may create impenetrable barriers to pedestrians or cyclists, making it difficult to navigate cities effectively. Many would also struggle to cross roads safely without an equivalent to the visual signals we rely on from drivers behind the wheel of UVs. Thanks to a 2017 study from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, we know that pedestrians take longer to cross in front of AVs and are less confident in when is the right time to do so. It’s an issue manufacturers are addressing. Ford has experimented with coloured lights, where Amazon-owned Zoox is determined to find a language which doesn’t need to be learnt in a combination of light and subtle sound. Perhaps the most promising so far is Semcon’s smiling car which, as you might expect, smiles to let pedestrians know it’s safe to cross the street.
Still, though we know self-driving vehicles will stop for anyone they meet on the road, increased safety is not necessarily a guarantee for pedestrians. Difficulty crossing roads due to the reasons above, together with the potential for pedestrians exploiting necessary automatic stopping features and so taking over busy streets, may lead to less predictable behaviour in human drivers and pedestrians themselves.
Rethinking our roads
While many remain cautious of new driverless technology, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that between 90% and 95% of road traffic accidents come down to human error. Ensuring drivers and pedestrians are, and feel, safe may therefore demand that AVs be further removed from the people who increase risk.
A recent study published in the Journal of Transportation Research suggests that road networks need to be redesigned with exclusive lanes for self-driving vehicles in order to make this transition period a smooth one. The proposal makes sense – navigating roads is relatively simple for AVs compared to anticipating and reacting to the actions of unpredictable humans. Dr Lance B. Eliot, an expert on AI, seems to agree, writing that such dedicated lanes would “allow self-driving cars to run smoothly and avoid the idiocy and foibles of human drivers”.
Here at 2025AD, it seems they may also assist in that wider journey of not just being safe around
AVs, but feeling it too. That, after all, is an issue which seems to remain. Perhaps when self-driving
vehicles are separated from human-driven ones and pedestrians, everyone will feel safer, and
driverless tech can continue to progress unimpeded.
Share your thoughts with us.
Would you feel comfortable sharing a road with AVs?
Might a separate ‘AV lane’ just create more frustration?
Tell us what you think in the comments below.
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