Pedestrians to be preceded by a robot holding a red flag?

A RECENT edition of the BBC’s All in the Mind radio programme delved into the way humans react to self-driving vehicles.

A trial in London found that people crossing the road tended to give Autonomous Vehicles less room than normal cars once the pedestrians realised the AVs would always slow down or stop if a human got in their way.

The pedestrians figured that, since the AVs in the trial drove themselves slowly (max. 15mph) and deferred to other road user, a self-driving car environment would be place where vehicles picked their way through the pedestrians not the other way round.

This finding made the experts unhappy. Not about the possibility that the cars might make a mistake and hurt someone, but because people were exhibiting undesirable behaviour by showing insufficient deference to vehicles.

Such behaviour by pedestrians clearly won’t scale up into the picture of AV transportation the auto business wants to peddle, which is of super-dense vehicle traffic that’s both fast and safe thanks to the wonders of artificial intelligence. In urban settings, you can’t have safe AVs that aren’t also slow AVs.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. One thing you can do with AVs that you can’t with what one guy on the BBC programme called ‘driver cars’ is daisy-chain them together into mini convoys: slower but more efficient.

Even then, the best the professor running the London AV trial had to offer was ‘peaceful coexistence’ between AVs and pedestrians. Like, say, North and South Korea. Or driver cars and pedestrians at the moment.

The big lie about AVs is that they’ll suddenly be perfected and become ubiquitous overnight, enabling them to seamlessly take over an existing ecosystem. People are increasingly pointing out that this won’t happen and that, for instance, cities will need to make radical planning changes to accommodate driverless cars.

I fervently hope the planners come up with something more imaginative than the 60s/70s approach of using miles of railings to corral pedestrians on to narrow pavements to give traffic unimpeded access to lethal estuaries of tarmac sliced between shops, houses, parks and other human spaces.

The French are very good at altering streetscapes to accommodate pedestrians and vehicles equably but these schemes are expensive, no to mention predicated on a level of national/civic pride that Brits only seem capable of applying to royal weddings, not the places we live in every day.

While I believe that AVs’ progress will be slower, more problematical and ultimately much less complete than their fans expect, it will be a very good thing if they force a rethink around the place of mobile steel capsules in human spaces like cities.

If not, you can see some tech wizard coming up a red-flag-holding robot to walk in front of pedestrians to make sure we show the requisite deference for self-driving cars.