This article is 3 months old
Wednesday 14 June 2017 07.00 BST
Picture yourself cycling down a city street in the year 2035. You’re late for a meeting, but the road you must cross ahead has recently been designated an “Autonomous Vehicle-only” route, where platoons of driverless cars whizz past, mere centimetres apart. You can’t ride across it, as cyclists and pedestrians have been banned for fear they would slow the driverless traffic. You must find a way around.
The clock is ticking. Do you attempt to climb the barrier and make a dash through the traffic? As you wait, you see a group of kids on a side street which is open to all vehicles. They are darting between driverless pods and forcing them to a stop. It’s a popular game.
Rewind to today. A report last month estimated that by 2035 up to 25% of new vehicles sold could be fully autonomous. Humans can be terrible drivers, and many proponents believe AV could reduce the 1.34 million annual global road death toll.
But cities have some urgent questions to answer and failure to address the issues raised could see us sleepwalking back into the problems of the 1960s and 70s, where cities became thoroughfares for traffic first … and places for people second.
But what action should a driverless car be programmed to take when it sees a cyclist or a pedestrian in its path? And what happens if people crossing roads learn they can simply walk in front of AVs which will be forced to brake?
Robin Hickman, a reader in transport and city planning at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning, believes this makes driverless cars “unworkable” on busy urban streets.
“In terms of the algorithm for dealing with obstacles that move in unpredictable ways, like cyclists or pedestrians, I would say that’s unsolvable,” says Hickman. “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,” he adds, “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.”
There’s a lot of interest and people tend to get distracted by this shiny new toy