Driverless cars in 2015: a motorcyclist's friend or foe?
Tesla, Audi, Mercedes and even Google are among the companies investing huge amounts in autonomous vehicles, with tests being carried out across selected cities in the UK to see whether this new generation of transport can co-exist with what we have on the roads at the moment.
The implications for motorcyclists could be very significant, and with this in mind the BMF’s Graeme Hay gives his lowdown on the hype and the reality of the dawning autonomous age:
The driverless car: a motorcyclist's friend or foe?
There has been so much in the media over the past nine months about automated or self-driving cars.
Internationally the biggest names like Google have been keen to demonstrate their view of a future of robot vehicles trundling about. Scares the hell out of me; how about you? As the massive PR onslaught has calmed I thought that it may be time to offer you another view; a more realistic view, I hope and one rather richer in encouragement than panic-mongering.
Now, to get the negative bit out of the way first. In Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Coventry and Bristol limited trials are under way of some pretty sad looking carriages, which move at a truly pedestrian pace mostly on footways. I’ve seen them at work and they are no problem to anyone, once parts of the Highways Act of 1835 have been repealed to allow the passage of carriages on footway areas.
The real story is the progressive introduction of driver assistance devices as car manufacturers develop their new products to keep up with the ever-moving NCAP safety standards. It began with anti-lock brakes more than 20 years ago and electronic braking assistance of a decade ago was followed seven years ago with electronic stability control becoming a requirement on all new cars in Europe.
Now we are seeing speed adaptive cruise control combined with a number of autonomous emergency braking systems. These systems enable a driver to set a cruise speed, and the vehicle will vary the speed according to the vehicles ahead of it up to that set speed.
The Autonomous Emergency Braking fitted as standard to a number of Volvo cars works below 24mph to stop the car from driving into a stationary object or crossing pedestrian. The VW system is a ‘full-speed’ system and will stop or if impossible, substantially slow the car from any speed to avoid or mitigate a collision.
So what does this mean so far for riders?
Well, it will be announced this summer that the new VW Golf models so equipped, have been involved in 45% fewer collisions of any kind than other cars of a similar type. As a rider it means that you are becoming very quickly less and less likely to be rammed from behind by a following car.
The next development that I have been looking at with folks from Thatcham is the testing of the detection systems that will make it all but impossible for a car driver seeking to pull out in front of a rider from a side road to do so. Now, are you still scared or actually feeling that the future could be better than the past?
Oh, timescale… most of this will be in all cars from 2018 onwards: assuming the industry figures that most cars last around 15 years then by 2030 the vast majority of cars will not drive into you or pull out in front of you or across your path.
So, what’s going on in the motorcycle world? Are we going to have bikes controlled for us?
Well, yes you do now and no, not really. Let me explain. Many high-performance bikes now have adjustable settings for engine performance, suspension behaviour and so forth. It all looks very cool and appeals to the many who enjoy such gadgets.
These systems, such as traction control and electronic launch control are combining with ABS and active suspension to assist many of us in moments of crisis. I spoke to a friend of mine only the other day, who has changed his BMW touring machine to a more recent model, with Active Suspension.
He told me of a moment when accelerating up a slip-road on to a motorway he encountered a small fuel spill. Leaning over for the curve and applying ‘moderate acceleration’ for his approach to the motorway he crossed the spill; in as long as it took for his heart to miss that beat the engine note changed, the suspension modified itself and he continued on his way up the slope to the motorway with almost no loss of his chosen line at all. An amazing experience for which I will take his word.
In a nutshell, the details of autonomous cars are nowhere near as sexy or frightening as the 2014 media storm suggested; the reality is that this may well be the best opportunity that riders have ever seen for an end to ‘SMIDSY’ and rear-shunt collisions, where riders all too often become victims.
I know that you will have your own views and I hope that this short piece provokes thoughts and discussion for you and many fellow riders. All I ask you to do is to look for the facts in your discussion and don’t become swept along by the media hype.