Bicycles & Autonomous Cars Are On A Collision Course

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Bicycling pays big dividends in terms of individual health, national medical care costs, and the profitability of local businesses. Sir Liam Donaldson, England’s former chief medical officer, is well known for saying, “The potential benefits of physical activity to health are huge. If a medication existed which had a similar effect, it would be regarded as a wonder drug or miracle cure.”

bicycle commutingTransport for London has calculated that if all Londoners walked or cycled for 20 minutes a day, that alone would save the National Health System  £1.7 billion in medical care costs over 25 years just in London alone.

Bicycling To Work

Around the world, cities are searching for ways to encourage citizens to bike to work. In addition to the health benefits, bicycles could help solve the crushing congestion problems that pollute the skies over cities and make living in an urban environment stressful.

Experts predict massive increases in the number of people living in cities in coming decades. As of this moment, the United States has 10 metropolitan areas with more than a million residents. China has over one hundred, with more being built as rapidly as possible.

Autonomous Cars To The Rescue?

City planners and futurists predict that autonomous driving vehicles will be a major factor in reducing urban congestion. After all, a car used to get to work typically sits idle during the work day. An autonomous car would not require a parking space as it shuttles around taking passengers hither and yon. The theory is that AVs would slash the total number of cars on city streets by up to 95%.

That is Brave New World kind of stuff, but what happens when autonomous cars and bicycles do start sharing the same space? Some people who have thought about that scenario predict chaos will ensue, as The Guardian reports.

Are Bicycles & Autonomous Cars Incompatible?

Robin Hickman, a student of transportation and city planning at University College London thinks AVs and bicycles are simply incompatible with each other. “In terms of the algorithm for dealing with obstacles that move in unpredictable ways, like cyclists or pedestrians, I would say that’s unsolvable. If a pedestrian knows it’s an automated vehicle, they will just take the priority. It would take you hours to drive down a street in any urban area.

“And in the context of India or China where there are different types of vehicles, more pedestrians, more cyclists, I would say it’s even more difficult for the AV to mix with all these unpredictable users.”

In theory, a driverless car will simply stop if it detects an obstruction, but detecting pedestrians and bicyclists is a daunting task for today’s computer algorithms. The computer in an autonomous car is programmed to operate on predictability. People on foot and those pedaling bicycles are notoriously unpredictble.

Bicyclists Are Unpredictable

Today’s AV programs have great difficulty recognizing a bicyclist in the first place and are often unable to determine what direction a bicycle is travelling. Deep3DBox, a program designed to identify 3D objects from 2D images, such as camera footage, is the most successful at doing this; yet it only spots a cyclist in 74% of cases, and correctly predicts the direction they are facing just 59% of the time. Poor weather makes detection even less accurate.

Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault and former CEO of Nissan once described cyclists as “one of the biggest problems for driverless cars.” They confuse the vehicles, he said, because at times they behave like pedestrians, at other times like drivers, and “they don’t respect any rules, usually.”

Google, which has been working on software for self-driving cars since 2009, acknowledges that “it’s hard for others to anticipate the movements” of bicyclists. It has taught its autonomous cars to recognize the hand signals bicyclists customarily use as well as the different sizes and shapes of bicycles. It now allows them more space on the road.

The Challenge For City Planners

Some urban planners worry that focusing on how to integrate cars into future cities is wrongheaded. Doing so in the past only reduced driver anxiety and made average speeds on city streets higher. That in turn put pedestrians and bicyclists at greater risk.

One suggestion is simply to make cars, bikes, pedestrians (and presumably household pets) part of the Internet of Things so everyone in the vicinity can “talk” to each other digitally in real time. While that may seem like a swell idea to some, it opens up all sorts of concerns about privacy and hacking. There may be many people who would be thrilled to get themselves fitted with a subdural RFID device, but most would find the idea far less appealing.

The obvious solution is to devise dedicated bike paths that are physically separated from city streets, but that opens up the possibility of barriers and elevated transportation corridors — the very kinds of things that Balkanized city neighborhoods for generations. Perhaps the cities of the future should simply be vehicle-free zones where the pace of travel is matched to that of pedestrians and bicycle riders.

Sadik-Khan, chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, says mayors around the world should be asking themselves: “What is the city that you want to be? There’s a lot of interest and people tend to get distracted by this shiny new toy [autonomous cars],” she says. “Let’s make sure that is the focus — creating the city that we want to have — and not looking at the technology as the be all and end all. There are some exciting possibilities with autonomous vehicles but I think we need to remember what makes a great city, and that’s really about the people, not the cars.”

Source: The Guardian

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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