Sun, Jun 18, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Driverless cars could minimize traffic deaths, and cause traffic chaos

One heavily emphasized benefit of autonomous vehicles is the potential to reduce traffic deaths, but the cars’ built-in cautiousness could lead to a host of urban traffic problems

By Laura Laker  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Louise Ting

Driverless cars appear unstoppable — except, of course, you can simply walk in front of one and force it to brake. Could this conundrum eventually mean a return to a dystopian world of segregated urban highways?

Picture yourself cycling down a city street in the year 2035. You are late for a meeting, but the road you must cross ahead has recently been designated an “autonomous vehicle-only” route, where platoons of driverless cars whizz past, mere centimeters apart.

You cannot ride across it, as cyclists and pedestrians have been banned for fear they would slow the driverless traffic. You must find a way around. The clock is ticking. Do you attempt to climb the barrier and make a dash through the traffic?

As you wait, you see a group of kids on a side street which is open to all vehicles. They are darting between driverless pods and forcing them to a stop. This is a popular game.

Rewind to today. A report last month estimated that by 2035, up to 25 percent of new vehicles sold could be fully autonomous.

Humans can be terrible drivers, and many proponents believe autonomous vehicles (AVs) could reduce the annual global road death toll of about 1.34 million.

However, cities have some urgent questions to answer and failure to address. The issues raised could see us sleepwalking back into the problems of the 1960s and 70s, when cities became thoroughfares for traffic first and places for people second.

CYCLISTS

Driverless cars navigate and detect other road users using a combination of cameras, detailed maps, radar and, in the case of Google cars, lidar (light detection and ranging), a laser-sensing system adapted from oceanographic surveying.

Google, in a company now spun off as Waymo, has been testing driverless cars — with drivers — on public streets in the US since 2009, clocking 4 million kilometers and honing the technology following interactions with other road users.

A driverless car will, in theory, stop if it detects an object in its path — yet cyclists, being small and agile, represent a unique challenge. AVs struggle with changes in speed and the huge variety of cycle shapes and sizes. They even struggle to detect which way a bicycle is pointing.

Deep3DBox, a program designed to identify 3D objects from 2D images such as camera footage, is the most successful at doing this; yet it only spots cyclists in 74 percent of cases and correctly predicts the direction they are facing just 59 percent of the time. Poor weather makes detection even less accurate.

Renault-Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn last year described cyclists as “one of the biggest problems for driverless cars.”

They confuse the vehicles, because at times they behave like pedestrians, at other times like cyclists, and “they don’t respect any rules usually,” he said.

Google has acknowledged that “it’s hard for others to anticipate their movements.”

This came after one cyclist bamboozled a self-driving Lexus by performing a prolonged track stand at a junction.

Google has since taught its cars to recognize cyclists’ hand signals, and different sizes and shapes of bike, and allows them more space on the road.

However, the issue of detecting and reacting to unpredictable behavior is far from solved, as the reporters recently witnessed during a ride in a driverless Nissan Leaf.

In a separate incident earlier this year a driverless Leaf was caught on camera overtaking a cyclist at very close proximity, even though the vehicle’s monitors indicated it had detected the rider.

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