Driverless cars are coming: So how will cyclists be affected?

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

Change is a’coming and it will revolutionise the way we get around. The development of driverless cars has gathered pace in recent years and it’s looking increasingly likely that, before too long, such vehicles will be a fixture on our roads. So what will the rise of driverless vehicles mean for society? And more importantly, of course, for cyclists?

The author of the following article works in transport policy and has more than 10 years experience in the field. He is also a keen racing cyclist. He has asked to remain anonymous as he is a government employee.

The owner-operated passenger car is on the way out, to be gradually replaced by the driverless vehicle. Many reports suggest early versions of the technology are advanced and that we’ll be seeing driverless cars on the road in years, rather than decades.

There are still a lot of sceptics when it comes to driverless vehicles, with some people unsure why they should surrender control of the steering wheel, or what chaos awaits them on the roads if they do.

It’s natural that people focus on the immediate changes: being able to divert your attention away from the car’s controls and the road. But there are other changes that will have an even greater impact.

Transport revolution

Mass-produced cars for private sale revolutionised transport in the 20th century. People could travel when and where they wanted as never before. For many, driving was an activity in itself. We fell in love with the automobile.

In more recent times, that relationship has faltered. As the novelty of motoring wore off, the road toll became a major public health and safety issue.

Today’s roads are congested, finding a parking spot is often difficult and for many, driving has become a burden. It’s quicker and easier to ride a bicycle on many urban trips than to drive.

As an alternative, conventional public transport is slow, unreliable and takes you where it’s going, rather than where you want to go. Its growing patronage in recent times is more due to population growth and commuters’ frustrations with driving than a renewed appreciation of trains, trams and buses.

Today’s private car spends an average of 95% of its life parked. It’s a horribly inefficient model that costs motorists thousands of dollars for an asset they hardly use. The public cost of providing real estate for on-road parking is too scary to try and calculate.

In short, our broader transport system is failing to deliver on its key roles of allowing people to move around quickly, conveniently, safely and at minimal cost. Enter the driverless vehicle.

Public-private transport

Automated driving technologies will eventually develop to a point where the human driver’s services are no longer needed. This is the tipping point. Wireless, digital communications will allow travellers to summon a driverless vehicle when and where they like – providing the freedom and independence of the private motor car. The real-time data that users provide will allow operators to deploy driverless vehicles in the most efficient manner possible to best meet demand.

You won’t need to own a car. Automated vehicles serving multiple users every day will be cheaper and easier. One point still being debated is whether automated vehicles will continue to transport individuals, thereby effectively substituting for the private motor vehicle of today, but without a driver and probably hired by its passengers on a short-term basis.

An alternative model is for autonomous vehicles to evolve more as customised public transport, carrying a larger number of unacquainted passengers on similar journeys. Or perhaps it will be a mix of individuals and groups.

What is likely is that the total number of motor vehicles will fall – possibly drastically. A large reduction in the number of motor vehicles has the potential to reduce demand for space on the roads and reduce crippling traffic congestion.

An opposing view is that a lesser number of efficient, low-cost automated vehicles will simply induce greater travel demand and that traffic levels will remain consistent.

Driverless cars and cycling

So what does the rise of driverless vehicles mean for cyclists? It’s unclear as yet, but there is scope to be optimistic. What should not change is the popularity of cycling for fitness and enjoyment. Driverless vehicles certainly do not offer a substitute for these key attractions to cycling.

The most immediate benefit for cyclists will be that driverless vehicles will be programmed to treat us with more care (see video below). There should be less of being deliberately cut off, struck or intimidated by unskilled, distracted and angry drivers. As vehicle control shifts from the human driver to the vehicle itself, legal liability also shifts towards the automated vehicle supplier.

Technologies such as on-board cameras, image recognition, radar and short range communications between vehicles (and cyclists) have the potential to eliminate the dreaded SMIDSY (“Sorry mate, I didn’t see you!”).

So the good news is that, in the future, other vehicles will potentially present a lower risk to cyclists. But if automated vehicles are eventually to become the standard, they will need to offer advantages to passengers over other forms of transport. This means speedy travel.

The problem with speed

Automated vehicles have the capacity to communicate with each other and negotiate crossing paths at high speed and in close proximity. They may not need archaic controls like traffic lights … or most of the other road rules for that matter.

But a brave new world of automated vehicles moving around at high speed in a computer-controlled display of precision driving doesn’t necessarily work if such cars are sharing the roads with cyclists (or pedestrians). A driverless vehicle can be only so effective in avoiding a cyclist when passing at speed and at a close distance.

All of this leads us down a familiar path, to separation of driverless vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. It is possible that the road network of the future will be segregated into different categories, with some roads or lanes exclusively for driverless vehicles, some for mixed use and some exclusively for cyclists and/or pedestrians. Operating conditions in mixed use zones may be made conservative, e.g. with lower speed limits, to protect vulnerable users such as cyclists.

Into the looking glass

The scenario many analysts are predicting is one where driverless vehicles become ubiquitous. But the shift won’t happen overnight.

In practice, we can expect driverless features to be incrementally fitted into new vehicles. The modern car has already taken some baby steps in that direction. Driver aids such as stability control, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warnings are features that stand by, ready to give drivers a helping hand.

Humans will retain primary control of vehicles for a little while yet, but bit-by-bit will hand it over to automated systems. This isn’t because the technology for fully automated control is far out-of-reach, but more because developers and regulators want to manage the implementation carefully.

A risk for cyclists is that the battle for legitimacy and road space will continue. It’s possible that as with the cars of today, the driverless vehicles of tomorrow will continue being prioritised by transport planners.

One possibility worth considering is that some driverless technologies could be adopted by cyclists. There’s little reason why hazard detection and collision avoidance warnings couldn’t be made available to cyclists via a heads-up display. Vehicle-to-bicycle communication may also alert cyclists to an approaching driverless vehicle and even advise cyclists on a course of action. Is it a step too far to predict that in the future, cyclists may even surrender a degree of control to automation?

It’s too early to say how automated vehicles will be implemented and what the full implications will be. But there will certainly be major implications – including for cyclists. It’s important we don’t stand by and watch it happen.

For more information about how the introduction of driverless vehicles might impact cyclists, be sure to check out the Amy Gillett Foundation’s submission to the Inquiry into Driverless Vehicles and Road Safety in NSW, and the Google Self-Driving Car Project YouTube channel.

Editors' Picks