The Guardian’s bike blog has an interesting post about driver-less cars and what they might mean for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s an interesting thought experiment:
A more dystopian [vision of the future] involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew that the truck barrelling towards you would automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking – and jaycycling. With cars able to speed through junctions, electronically interacting with each other, and with no need for traffic lights, it would be harder for humans outside of driverless cars to use the roads.
This is fun stuff, read the whole thing.
So while we’re on the subject, what will driver-less cars do for buses? To start, I believe that once robocars become truly viable, part of the sales pitch of the robo-system’s makers will be that they will share in some (all?) of the liability for accidents caused using their systems. This will make car insurance extremely expensive for someone who wants to drive themselves. Eventually, it’ll get to the point where no cars but high-performance vehicles such as Maseratis, Porsches and Aston Martins will be sold for manual driving.
This will put a lot of pressure on bus systems operators (Metro, Sound Transit, etc.) to replace bus fleets with robo-buses. Even though it would probably save a huge amount of money to the bus systems, I suspect that buses will be some of the last vehicles robotised because of the power of transit operators unions. Transit operators would insist that robobuses will ignore you while you’re waiting at your stop, and that you’ll miss the human touch. Robotised-bus proponents would insist that costs savings and the promise of on-time buses 99.9% of the time make the trade-off worth it. An argument about public safety will occur; who would want to get on a nearly empty Rapid Ride E late at night by themselves with no operator? Over time, too many human-operated LRT and buses would cause accidents – statistics would show some huge percentage of remaining traffic accidents were caused by buses, and eventually bus drivers will be morphed into neutered security guards, who will cost the same as the old drivers did and the cost savings will never materialise.
For cyclists, at least in Seattle, the move to robocars will be mostly very positive. Car-sharing would become nearly ubiquitous as your car would be able to drive other people around when you are out of it, so shoulder-parking spots would give way to bike lanes throughout the city. Cycling would become more popular as it becomes safer and nearly every traffic signal will be retrofitted with a cyclist period as they have in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Maybe entire streets, mainly side streets, would become cyclist-only or nearly so; robocars would only be allowed on if they were stopping there and even then, they would only be allowed to go 10 mph. Bike sharing would thrive as well, as people would use robocars and robobuses to get close to their destination and ride bikes the last mile.
Pedestrians would have a rougher go of it. Crossing major streets would be difficult with the exquisitely timed signals, and the new driver-cum-passenger majority/plurality would become even extremely anti-pedestrian. Pedestrians will go from people you see looking out the window to faceless obstacles that are never seen as you look at your smartphone or tablet from the self-driving car. Eventually, as a small consolation to pedestrians, we’ll see a few elevated crossings installed in major corridors, the sort that are common in big cities in East Asia, and lots of people taking robocars for what had previously been short walks because of the real or perceived anti-pedestrian bias.
Ok, that’s enough of futurist imaginings from me. What do you think driver-less cars will do to the transportation experiences of those who don’t drive for every trip?