Toddler Take the Wheel
As with most forms of public transit, Europe is far outpacing the United States. Wageningen, Denmark; Helsinki, Finland; and Tallinn, Estonia have all pushed ahead to see what a future of autonomous public transit might look like.
In January 2016, AV mini-buses in the agricultural town of Wageningen drove “back and forth along the side of a lake” at 5mph. They were, however, the first AVs to “operate without a driver, on a public road.” The WePod mini-buses are expected to eventually reach a maximum speed of 15mph.
In late 2016, Helsinki put two AV mini-buses on the road “alongside traffic and commuters.” Like in Wageningen, the buses travel 7mph, although they have the ability to go up to 25mph. Finland is unique in not requiring “vehicles on public roads to have a driver,” meaning the buses could be filled to capacity (of 12) with passengers who had never experienced an AV.
During July and August 2017, two AV mini-buses served “the center of the town” in Tallinn. They went a maximum of 12mph, and just bounced back and forth between two stops. Each bus costed around $100,000.
I think Tallinn is the most interesting example because it shows more clearly the challenges that AVs face on roads. Much of the discussion surrounding the interactions between AVs and people focuses on the people using the car; we have not really discussed how AVs will interact with people who are not sitting in the car. Within the first three days of AVs starting service in Tallinn, there had been no “major incidents” but quite a few “near misses.” There is only one intersection where the buses interact with other traffic, but at that intersection the buses have broken multiple laws.
They have ignored a pedestrian walk sign, a “speeding police car’s emergency lights,” and a red-light at the intersection. These are all common occurrences that the AVs should be equipped to respond to, and yet they cannot. If AVs ignore pedestrian walk signals, how can we be sure they will stop for pedestrians who crossing the street in crosswalks? How can we be sure they will stop for pedestrians crossing the street unexpectedly (i.e., jaywalking)? AVs will not be widely accepted until they can appropriately react to unexpected but common occurrences like people crossing the street outside of crosswalks.
The good news for AVs is that due to their slow speeds, they are not nearly as dangerous to pedestrians as human driven vehicles. As long as AVs continue to operate below 20mph, the likelihood of them killing a pedestrian is only 5% and there’s a 20% chance that the person they hit would walk away with no major injuries. Human driven vehicles might be more aware of pedestrians, but they are also much more likely to drive at speeds higher than 20mph, no matter what the speed limit is. (One reason for this is the design speed is often slightly higher than the posted speed, making it easy for drivers to speed without noticing.) Getting hit by a car is not inherently dangerous (e.g., a car going 5mph isn’t going to do much damage) – it is only dangerous when the car is driving fast enough to cause damage.
Some think that the need for AVs to always stop when a pedestrian walks in front of them will limit the consumer appeal of AVs. A professor at UC Santa Cruz thinks that the need for AVs to be “risk-averse” will ultimately lead to pedestrians to “act with impunity” and dominate the roads because they will be “secure in the knowledge that a car will yield” once they step into its path. The professor, Adam Millard-Ball, is quoted as saying “From the point of view of a passenger in an automated car, it would be like driving down a street filled with unaccompanied five-year-old children.”
In conclusion: we think driving in a world of AVs will be amazing, but it might actually feel like a 5 year old has taken the wheel.