AVs, Pedestrians, and Human Perversity

In the previous post, I extolled the possibilities for driverless cars to improve our lives by reducing the number of traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities, provide mobility for the aged and handicapped, and reduce the vast acreage we devote to parking spaces. I guess I’m a techno-optimist. (I’m reading Peter Diamandis’s book “Abundance” right now.) But I acknowledge that, given the perversity of human nature, there is a dark side to just about everything.

In a recent blog post, Charles Marohn, leader of the Strong Towns movement, highlights how people will game the safety programming of driverless cars to the detriment of our human settlement patterns.

When perfected, what will an automated vehicle do on that nasty stroad in your community — the one where the cars today drive too fast and the drivers are too oblivious, where nobody sane would dare to cross…. When all cars are AV, what happens when someone crosses midblock?

The obvious answer is that the vehicles stop and allow the person to cross. They don’t run that person down. They don’t kill them. The automated vehicle will be programmed to always stop when someone steps out into traffic. As a society, we would not have it any other way.

So, knowing this, who is ever going to stop and wait at another traffic signal? What person on foot, in their right mind, would wait for a gap to open so they can cross without impacting the flow of traffic? Nobody.

I have to walk across a nasty stroad every time I go downtown. Why would I wait my turn to cross in minus 20 degree weather, with the wind whipping at my face, when all I need to do is step out and traffic comes to a complete stop? I wouldn’t.

And that is not acceptable. Humans will not be allowed to interfere with the free flow of traffic. Our economy will depend on it, after all. All those commuters that need to get to their jobs, all those potential customers that need to get where they are going. … There’s too much at stake in maintaining efficiency.

So, it will be against the law to step out into traffic except at designated places and times.

Well Chuck, how is that different than today’s jaywalking ordinances? Exactly! It’s not. We don’t even need new regulations, just the courage to enforce existing laws.

Despite the fact that in this country’s best urban spaces, the ones that are thriving, jaywalking is rarely enforced (at least rarely enforced except as a law enforcement pretext, which is a different matter entirely), we’ll make stopping jaywalking a national priority. With cameras on every vehicle, and the motivation of frustrated drivers to use them, enforcement will not be a problem.

And if it is, we’ll do what I posited years ago that we would do: we’ll erect human fences along the edge of the streets to keep people out. The people….excuse me, I need to use the correct language in this context….the “pedestrians” will be allowed to cross only at designated pedestrian crossings. …

Automated vehicle technology will do nothing to make our streets better places to be and, if we continue to have blind faith in it, has the very real chance of setting our cities back another generation.

Yeah, I can see things unfolding that way.  I totally agree with Marohn that we can’t let autonomous vehicles ruin our walkable streets. But I also have confidence that we can find solutions to the issues he raises. We need to start experimenting now, and start learning through trial and error what works. There’s too much to be gained from AVs to give up before we try.  

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9 responses to “AVs, Pedestrians, and Human Perversity

  1. Many European cities already use permanent fencing in many places to keep folks on the sidewalk. The only place to cross is at intersections. Hell, New York City has lots of its streets barricaded this way with lots of those movable interlocking barricades used for crowd control.

    • I recall seeing fencing at busy intersections in London, too.

      • Y’all are forgetting that autonomous cars is one side of the technology and connected cars is another side of the technology connected cars will be talking to devices like lights and pedestrian Crossing and things like that that will basically direct the car to stop and let pedestrians cross when they need to cities will be set up to make the streets safer for pedestrians by directing cars to stop. crazy will hate this for sure!

  2. Yea, the same VDOT that can’t coordinate two traffic lights 500 feet from each other is going to implement connected vehicle technology?

    You crawl before you walk. VDOT hasn’t even gotten out of the crib.

  3. All this talk about self-driving cars and WMATA hasn’t even gotten self-driving trains working.

    Wow. Look at that. I trashed both VDOT and WMATA today.

  4. Gee, all the comments under the previous post belong here, too. DJR, you’ve already mentioned Richard Florida’s tabulation of where the private investment concentrations are, and asked LG why those locations shine so; obviously there is access to the financial community and several notable institutions of higher education, but what about where all those wealthy executives want to live? It was Richard Florida who predicted the Baltimore to Richmond corridor was our collective urban future (https://www.baconsrebellion.com/40663-2/). Isn’t urban walkability one of the prized values Richmond and Washington, and potentially Baltimore, have to offer to attract new investment and new residents? Are we starting down a transportation path here that will differentially harm Richmond’s potential future?

  5. Autonomous vehicles, once calibrated for pedestrians and bikers are going to be far less a threat to them – far less than human-driven vehicles and that distinction will be well noted with a strong advocacy that everyone – all humans be held to the same statistics as autonomous and connected vehicles have; in other words about 1/100 the kill rate of human drivers…

    yeah – you’ll still be able to drive your own car – but the rules for having accidents.. especially involving pedestrians and bikers will be much tighter.

    people who hit pedestrians and bikers will be considered similar to drunk drivers… since we’ll know that “programmed” cars kill far, far fewer of ped and bike.

    There was a time when drunk driving was considered just an awful “accident”.

    All of that changed… and I predict we’ll see something similar with accidents involved peds and bikes after we see that autonomous vehicles rarely kill bikers and peds.We’re not there yet – but we will be , as soon as the programmers get the software better calibrated.

  6. You make an interesting argument, LG. Not only will the pattern of driving “accidents” change with automation, but also our views on the culpability of old-fashioned drivers for their mistakes. Computers don’t drive while drunk, or impaired due to drugs, or tired, or even distracted. Today, we put up with a certain amount of that as simply human nature; but with autonomy always available, perhaps we should consider how our views on the failings of human control of a vehicle will change. Perhaps not so subtly we will find human control reduced to second best, something that’s risky and a contributing factor in assigning blame for accidents, something to be avoided if possible. I think this attitudinal change will go way beyond the risk to pedestrians and bicyclists.

  7. The code is still written by humans, who may have done such while drunk, or impaired due to drugs, or tired, or distracted–or just plain incompetent.

    Have any of you ever heard of the Therac 25?

    If not–Google it.

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