Driverless cars promise to improve road safety. But what do pedestrians and cyclists think?

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The introduction of driverless vehicles promises many road safety benefits, from fewer car crashes to better awareness of vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists.

And in Pittsburgh, a city designated as one of the US Department of Transportation’s ten ‘proving grounds’ for autonomous vehicles, a number of automated vehicles are already being tested on the streets.

We’re at a crossroads, and the decisions that Pittsburgh leaders make will decide whether our cities conform to AVs or if we make AVs conform to the places in which we want to live.
— BikePGH commentary on its autonomous vehicles survey

With many of these tests taking place on routes popular with cyclists, Bike Pittsburgh (BikePGH), a cycling advocacy group, recently conducted a survey to find out how cyclists and pedestrians in the city feel about sharing the roads with autonomous vehicles.

Do cyclists and pedestrians approve of autonomous vehicles?

BikePGH gathered responses both from its members and from members of the public. Overall, the survey found that people broadly approve of the use of Pittsburgh’s public streets as a proving ground for autonomous vehicles. 

Among BikePGH’s members, three-quarters of respondents (76%) either approve or somewhat approve of this use of the city’s streets, although this approval dropped slightly among the general public to just over two-thirds (68%) of respondents.

Interestingly, the more experience people have of sharing the road with autonomous vehicles while riding a bicycle, the more likely they are to accept them on the roads, according to the survey. 

BikePGH also found that most of its open-ended survey questions produced “overwhelmingly neutral to positive” answers from respondents. 

For example, it said, numerous respondents noted how autonomous vehicles stick to the speed limit, drive cautiously and predictably, don’t block pedestrian crossings and indicate when turning.

Many of those surveyed also noted that autonomous vehicles help to calm traffic, as a single autonomous vehicle travelling at the speed limit acts as a ‘pace car’ for the other vehicles behind it.

Their novelty should not obscure the fact that they are neither distracted, intoxicated, nor aggressive, unlike the far more numerous human operators I encounter on the roads.
— Respondent to BikePGH survey on autonomous vehicles

The research found that many people noticed the way autonomous vehicles behave around them, yielding to pedestrians at crossings or maintaining the legally required four feet of space when passing cyclists.

Respondents also noted the lack of road rage and aggression they feel from autonomous vehicles, compared to human drivers.

At the same time, many reported not being comfortable with the ‘dehumanization’ of their interactions with the vehicles, even if they ended up being safe.

Will autonomous vehicles reduce road injuries and fatalities? 

Among both BikePGH respondents and the members of the public surveyed, a significant majority believe that autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce injuries and fatalities.

Almost three-quarters (72%) of members believe that autonomous vehicles could reduce injuries and fatalities, alongside nearly two-thirds (62%) of the general public.

Only a small proportion of those surveyed (3% of BikePGH members and 8% of the general public) do not think that autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce injuries and fatalities.

At the same time, not everyone is convinced by autonomous vehicles. Some respondents said that the self-driving cars made them anxious, although they often then witnessed them behaving in the right way. 

In particular, several pedestrians noticed issues with autonomous vehicles not stopping to let them across at crossings – an interaction often made trickier by the inability to make eye contact with a driver.

Some cyclists also noted a tendency for autonomous vehicles to drive closer to a bike lane than human drivers might. 

In addition, several incidents were identified by respondents where an autonomous vehicle had come particularly close to a pedestrian or cyclist, leading to criticism of the way companies operating autonomous vehicles have responded to public enquiries or complaints.

How should autonomous vehicles be regulated? 

According to the survey, a large proportion of respondents believe authorities should come up with regulations regarding autonomous vehicle testing on public streets (73% of BikePGH members and 70% of the general public). 

Among those questioned, nearly three-quarters (74% of BikePGH members and 71% of the general public) also think that companies should be required to share non-personal data with the proper authorities.

However, respondents were less keen on the idea of capping the speed limit at which autonomous vehicles are allowed to operate. A slight majority of the general public (53%) said that the speed limit should be capped, while among BikePGH members this proportion fell to 46%. 

Even fewer respondents supported the idea that autonomous vehicles should be prevented from operating in active school zones, with less than a third of the general public backing the suggestion. 

Responding to the survey’s findings, BikePGH said in a position statement: “While it’s impossible to know when an AV is in self-driving mode or is human operated, people clearly want transparency and accountability, and as long as it’s left to nonprofits to collect anecdotes, people will be slow to trust the AV companies, especially if they deny problems with the technology or blame their drivers whenever something goes wrong.

“When a negative interaction occurs, most people will assume that it’s the fault of the robot, so it’s up to AV companies to take responsibility and create a clear course for improvement.”