Do Driverless Cars Endanger Cyclists?

There’s been much excitement about driverless cars over the last few years, with tech companies like Google and Cisco joining virtually every car company in trying to get the technology off the ground. This isn’t the only trend in transportation we should be watching, though — and while it may seem cool and futuristic, it’s not necessary the most forward-thinking.

A very old-school technology — the bicycle — might actually be a better bet in the race to transform personal transportation. Therefore, it’s critical to ask, as The League of American Bicyclists does: Will autonomous motor vehicles push human-powered transport like cyclists and pedestrians off the transportation grid?

And what better time than National Bike Month to have that conversation?

The key question is whether self-driving technology is expected to live within a bubble of robot drivers. To join today’s roads, the real test is whether self-driving cars can avoid hitting actual people — especially smaller targets with different speeds and movement patterns, like crossing pedestrians and cyclists.

A lot of science fiction movies from the past, like “Minority Report” — below – imagined a fully automated transportation grid, but it’s clearly unfriendly to other types of transit:

There’s a larger, long-term danger here, as well. The move from gasoline-powered vehicles to hybrids and fully electric systems — and, to a lesser extent, hydrogen-powered — goes part of the way to alleviating the environmental issues of large-scale car ownership. But it doesn’t deal with the heavy carbon footprint of car manufacturing itself, however — nor the high cost of individual car ownership, an increasing burden for working and middle class people, whose wages have stagnated over the last few decades.

A combination of affordable and accessible public transport, walking and cycling would provide tremendous health benefits for our increasingly sedentary population — and even broader economic benefits, as it does in the cities that are best in these categories.

All of these laudable goals, which rely on investments in improved bike-friendly infrastructure and expanded mass transit in traditionally car-focused cities, could be impacted if an artificial car ownership bubble were produced by self-driving technology.

In terms of personal safety, there are two layers of danger for cyclists to contend with as a result of self-driving cars. The first is that a sufficiently high standard of safety measures has yet to be put into place. The next layer of danger is that support for self-driving cars prevents cities from investing in bike paths and road crossings or even dedicated bike lanes, which help keep cyclists safe from autonomous and human-driven cars alike.

Railway accidents almost exclusively occur where train tracks meet public roads. Trains and cars are both safer when this infrastructure doesn’t meet at all — for instance, in the case of underpasses and overpasses.

Likewise, cyclists are safer when they have a dedicated space, but many cities only have a patchwork of disconnected options for cyclists to traverse their neighborhoods. And that often requires traveling down roadways that were never designed to accommodate cyclists.

Any trend that extends the dominance of individually-owned motor vehicles at the expense of improved cycling, pedestrian and mass transit options will ultimately be bad for traffic fatality statistics, emissions, human health, lower-income people and city infrastructure costs. At the precipice of a much-needed revolution in human transportation, this is the larger — albeit more abstract — danger of self-driving cars.

Photo Credit: Thomas Gamstaetter/Unsplash

47 comments

Marie W
Marie W8 months ago

Thanks.

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Johan Maltesson
Johan Maltessonabout a year ago

Self-driving cars will probably be a lot safer for both cyclists and pedestrians, as the factor of human error and negligence is erased. For a sustainable future, we should definitely prioritise pedestrians, cyclists and public transport over cars though.

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RK R
RK Rabout a year ago

At least autnomous vehicles are programmed to follow traffic laws......

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Winn A
Winn Aabout a year ago

noted

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Irene S
Irene Sabout a year ago

Driverless cars are a try to make humans redundant. Cyclists are humans ...

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Monica Collier
Monica Collierabout a year ago

I don't understand the purpose of a self driving car. I thought the point of a car was to transport a person to another place. Who then is in a self driving car? Sounds foolish

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Anne M
Anne Moranabout a year ago

Yes,, and to everyone else out there...

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Gerry W
Gerry Wabout a year ago

Most of the hype so far is dangerous and untrustworthy, if a pedestrian or cyclist or kangaroo jumps out when you are doing 70 kph you will kill them all as there is no vehicle that can stop in 5-10 meters and never will be.

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David C
David Cabout a year ago

thanks

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David D
David Daisy May Boldockabout a year ago

As self-driving cars become more the norm, the idea that a friend or family member may arrive dead at your house will be a reality.

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