Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Autonomous vehicles versus pedestrians and bicyclists

Florida Weekly 'Outdoors' column, 5/23/18

Will a turning autonomous vehicle sense and avoid this pedestrian? COURTESY PHOTO

In a perfect world, self-driving cars could be the best thing that can happen to all users of our transportation network, including those of us on foot and bike. Currently available technologies that assist drivers are proving effective in terms of reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities, primarily among motorists and their passengers.

Features as basic as back-up cameras/sensors and tire pressure monitoring systems to those as advanced as forward collision warning with auto braking have been found to significantly reduce collisions between motor vehicles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that such systems reduce rear-end collisions by 40 percent and cut injuries by 30 percent in situations when a crash occurs. But the rush to move toward fully autonomous vehicles may be putting vulnerable road users even more at risk.

Removing human factor out of something as complex as operating a two-ton vehicle has both benefits and risks. Theoretically, when technology is working to its full extent and the human factor is removed the chances for error should be reduced to zero. But that assumes no mechanical or technological failings, something most of us who use any kind of technology would question as even being possible.

“What could go wrong?” comes to mind. From a more practical standpoint — at least in our lifetimes — most motor vehicles on our roads will not be fully autonomous but rather have some level of automation so there will still be the human factor mixed with technology. If used as envisioned this combination should improve safety for everyone.

The various business interests involved in developing and selling autonomous vehicles, as well others that will realize financial benefits by using them, are moving very quickly toward getting them approved and on the market.

Those who regulate these vehicles — government, from the feds to local jurisdictions — have been pretty generous in allowing testing on public roads of a technology and industry that’s still fledgling. While crashes, injuries and fatalities related to them have been few, serious flaws have been exposed that should give developers and regulators pause. One major shortcoming relates to the ability of driverless vehicles to adequately sense and safely operate around pedestrians and people on bikes.

Granted, the current environment on our roads for pedestrians and cyclists is shaky at best due to motorists’ inattention, poor judgment and just plain bad driving. But in the early stages of testing driverless vehicles we need to be mindful of their limitations.

As was stated by Bryan Reimer, Ph.D., associate director of the New England University Transportation Center at MIT, in a Consumer Reports article on the matter: “We think about these technologies as being highly intelligent. They’re not. What are machines doing here? They’re operating on behavior they have learned from us.”

Until these vehicles get beyond the “learning” stage, our public transportation system and the vulnerable users sharing them should not be used as live testing grounds. Any legitimate research trial would never put humans at risk without their agreement.

This issue isn’t going away anytime soon. You can stay abreast of how it affects non-motorists and what is being done to protect us at BikeWalkLee’s blog, Also, a homegrown effort to address our dismal traffic record is getting off the ground. Lee County departments, Lee Health and the Lee County Injury Prevention Coalition are seeking the organizations to be part of the solution. See to learn more. ¦

- Dan Moser is a long-time bicycle/pedestrian advocate and traffic safety professional who cycles, runs and walks regularly for transportation, recreation and fitness. Contact him at and 334-6417. 

For Lee County cycling and tri events visit Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club (; Florida Mudcutters (; and SW Florida Biking Meetup Group ( The Florida Bicycle Association ( is your source for statewide happenings. BikeWalkLee’s blog site has all the information you’ll need to stay abreast of advocacy efforts in Southwest Florida as well as statewide and nationally.

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