It finally happened, the first pedestrian death caused by a self-driving car, or as they are often referred to, an autonomous vehicle. Yesterday, a 49 year old women was hit and killed by a self-driving Uber car in Arizona.
This has implications for cyclists, a point driven home by the fact there was a crumbled bicycle next to the Uber car that hit the women. (She was described as a pedestrian rather than a cyclist in the news reports because, at the time of the collision, the women was walking her bike across the road.)
One of the problems with the new technology behind autonomous vehicles is that it often struggles to detect cyclists on the road. By comparison, it is getting quite good at identifying what are fairly large motor vehicles, and, despite the collision in Arizona, it isn’t bad at spotting relatively slow moving pedestrians. However, cyclists pose a special challenge for autonomous vehicles. The profile of cyclists isn’t much larger than a pedestrian, but they are right on the road moving among motor vehicles, and travelling at speeds that are much faster than someone on foot. As a result, the testing of self-driving cars can be especially dangerous for cyclists.
In an effort not to be left behind in the race to develop this new technology, various jurisdictions throughout North America are falling over themselves to allow autonomous vehicles to be tested on their roads. This is currently the case in Ontario, where as many as seven companies or organizations have been testing self-driving cars. Some of this testing has been taking place on public roads in the Ottawa area.
The next step in developing the technology is to start testing driverless cars. Up to now, autonomous vehicles have had to have a human behind the wheel ready to take over in case anything goes wrong. Driverless cars will be just that – cars driving around the streets without any driver whatsoever. California will start allowing the testing of driverless cars this April, and Ontario has already announced plans to follow suit.
With all this testing of autonomous vehicles and driverless cars, you would think that maybe the governments have paid special attention to ensure the technology will be able to properly detect and react to cyclists. Think again. The Senate recently released a report on the deployment of autonomous vehicles in Canada, and it didn’t contain a single word about bicycles and cyclists. That’s right, a 70 page report without any consideration on how this new technology will affect the safety of cyclists on the road.
Autonomous vehicles and driverless cars isn’t all bad news for cyclists. Once they become the norm, these self-driving vehicles may help people to stop seeing cars as an extension of themselves, or as empowering exoskeletons through which they often deal with the outside world. Moreover, when the technology matures, it should be possible to effectively program self-driving vehicles to detect cyclists and keep a safe distance from them. This will be a major improvement over the status quo, where cyclists regularly have to put up with distracted or aggressive drivers.
However, these benefits are still years away. In the meantime, governments should adopt the necessary safety measures to ensure that autonomous vehicles can safely coexist with cyclists while the technology is being developed.
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