Driverless cars - Thinking outside the vehicle

Driverless cars - Thinking outside the vehicle

If you’ve ever done a search on driverless cars you know there’s no lack of available information. Volumes of articles discuss the various benefits and issues that accompany this next big thing in human history. And rightfully so. Such technology will revolutionise our way of moving and drastically change our standard of living.

Imagine being stuck in traffic for 40 minutes every morning during rush hour.

The stress of navigating through tightly packed vehicles, the waste of precious time sitting at blocked intersections, the tension you feel in your neck while looking for a parking spot. The list goes on.

But, voila! With driverless vehicles, those issues will be a blast from the past. Traffic jam? No problem. You can catch up on your sleep, or even start work earlier, while the vehicles drive themselves and you to your destination.

The benefits of driverless cars are numerous.

They have, for example, been described as a tool to improve road safety by eliminating human errors in the decision making process. Additionally, the constant speeds at which they can be programmed to drive at and their precision in calculating stopping gaps could potentially increase road capacity and reduce the congestion we currently experience on our drive to work each day.

But how will driverless cars affect other road users?

Let’s take a step back and think about those who remain outside the vehicle. Will this advance in technology improve lives for pedestrians and cyclists who share the same road space? Or are they the losers in this equation?

Law-abiding autonomous driverless vehicles hold huge potential in improving safety for more vulnerable road users. Their built-in sensors/cameras will supposedly detect pedestrians/children/cyclists running into the middle of the road and automatically stop themselves before any accidents happen. 

Yet studies have shown that there is still lack of public trust amongst these vulnerable user groups. Their main concern? The lack of communication and information between vehicles and people, such as eye contact or a wave. When pedestrians step onto the road, there is no certainty that the driverless vehicle has detected them and that it is safe for them to cross.

Is resolving ambiguity the solution?

A research conducted by Professor Merat from the University of Leeds surveyed 644 people of all ages to find out if and how they will feel safe around autonomous vehicles. The majority of the pedestrian and cyclists requested for unambiguous ways to be informed that they had been detected.

There are no lack of ideas, including display signs, audible chimes and voice instructions. However, there have been few studies testing their effectiveness in communicating messages with pedestrians and cyclists. A group of researchers at Duke University have recently conducted a study to evaluate how two display designs affect pedestrians’ decisions to cross the road (2). The results of the experiment showed that neither display signs provide significant changes in influencing how pedestrians cross. The conclusion was that gap distance is still the main determinant for pedestrians deciding to cross the road. Further studies will be required to search for suitable vehicle-to-pedestrian communication methods that will increase level of confidence and safety for pedestrians.

The display signs discussed above may be useful for pedestrians and cyclists midblock, where vehicles have right of way, but what about pedestrian crossings? Pedestrians and cyclists have right of way at these locations and vehicles must slow down and wait instead of expecting pedestrians and cyclists to search for suitable gaps to cross. Will a driverless vehicle be sufficiently sophisticated to recognise road markings for a pedestrian crossing or detect when cyclists hurtle towards these crossings at speed?

Which leads us to our next question: what is the cost?

If, for example, pedestrian crossings are to be coded as part of the map used by driverless vehicles, what is the level of investment required by our government before such vehicles can be allowed on the streets?

Scanning and surveying of such facilities will definitely cost a fortune, not to mention the amount of time and manpower necessary to carry out such tasks if it were to be deployed at a national or even global level. And what if locations of these facilities change during road upgrades and improvement works? It will be necessary to ensure databases are updated before the roads can be safely opened for operation. This entails a much higher efficiency in data updates, not only for the smooth operation of driverless cars, but for the safety of more vulnerable road users. Will this come at additional cost to the relevant body responsible for maintaining the road network, or will the users of driverless vehicles foot this bill?

Databases will have to be written on a common platform, which can be easily read by driverless vehicles regardless of make and model. Instead of different systems used in different states and regions, governing authorities will need to reach mutual agreements to develop a common database that suits the needs of each authority. 

First things first.

Driverless technology will soon be within our reach. However, numerous technology issues desperately call for our attention, prior to implementation, to ensure the road environment is safe for all personnel. Manufacturers may be in the race to become the first to produce driverless vehicles, but we, as end users, must keep ahead of the race to ensure the outcome of such an exciting change remains positive.  

Shirley Kong 
Traffic Engineer

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