An interesting article on Citylab highlights something I’ve been saying for a while when it comes to the hype around driverless cars – what about the pedestrians. It’s based of the video (below) from MIT’s Senseable City Lab showing how an urban intersection might work in a world of driverless cars.
Imagine a city without traffic lights, where lanes of cars merge harmoniously from one to the next, allowing traffic to flow smoothly across intersections. This futuristic vision is becoming reality. The development of autonomous driving promises to revolutionise the landscape of urban mobility.
As Citylab note:
The first thing to notice is how truly terrifying it would be—at least initially—to ride in a driverless car going that fast through an intersection. Seriously: pause the video at 44 seconds and see how narrowly the car turning left avoids being slammed by another going straight. When you ride in a self-driving car, you quickly learn to trust it; in fact, Google has said its early test riders trusted the car too much on highways. But having faith in a computerized intersection overlord to orchestrate so much city traffic at such great speeds will require a steep period of public adjustment.
The second thing to note is far more important: Where are all the pedestrians and bike riders? (Hat tip to Columbia University planning professor David King for bringing this to our attention.) Keep in mind this wasn’t some remote crossing being modeled; it was the intersection of Massachusetts and Columbus avenues in Boston.
There’s an obvious reason why an “intelligent intersection” would want to eliminate people crossing on foot or by bike: they’d slow things down. But it would be a huge mistake for cities to undo all the progress being made on human-scale street design just to accommodate a perfect algorithm of car movement. If the result is that driverless cars need to move through cities at sub-optimal speeds, then so be it. We won’t be losing as much productivity to traffic as we do today, anyway.
So yes driverless cars might improve vehicle throughput a bit over what we have now but almost certainly not as much as the claims made by many about the technology unless we take the retrograde step of marginalising pedestrians (and cyclists).
I must say I hadn’t thought about the issue of how it would feel being in a driverless car and going through an intersection and seeing another car approach at speed from a different direction. That would definitely take some time to get used to and would be very scary if you were on a bike.
All up it just adds to my view that while driverless vehicles are coming, they won’t be here as soon or have as big an impact as some people claim. In the mean time we will likely continue to see aspects of autonomy increasing such as technology that helps improve safety or assist with parking.