How will driverless cars affect motorcyclists?

google self driving car white

Published on 6 August 2016 by Robert Drane

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Filed under categories: Features, Campaigning

On July 11 2016, the Department for Transport announced a public consultation regarding the future of driverless cars and other autonomous vehicles on Britain’s roads. As part of “a rolling programme of reform on the roadmap to fully automated vehicles”, it proposed two changes to the Highway Code.

The “fully automated” bit is what interests you and me. Though it is to be cars, not motorbikes, that will be incorporating the new tech, automation has had, and will continue to have, a significant impact to the road system we use.

We want to know how automation will affect motorcyclists.


Do we need automated vehicles?

In a world where the quantity of road-users is ever-increasing, road safety is a major concern.

Scientists believe that the human is the unpredictable, weak-link on the road. By replacing people with predictable computers, road safety could (in theory) be revolutionised. In fact, The Guardian suggests that driverless technology could cut incidents by 80%.

Anna Zee, BMF’s Co-operative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) expert, explained: “Theoretically, driverless cars could be safer for everyone and that's the main reason for the enthusiasm for them in road safety circles.”

So the general, if somewhat utopian, view is that fully-automated driverless cars will be much, much safer than any other technology could ever be. The real question of their take-up is will we trust the tech and would drivers give up their freedom of control?


Will driverless cars be a danger to motorcyclists?

While safer roads can only be a good thing for riders, there is a potential for both problems and benefits. Anna’s biggest concern is whether the technology being developed today will be designed with motorcyclists in mind.

“I can accept that systems that identify pedestrians and bicycles immediately ahead or behind will also be able to detect the presence of a motorcycle but what about on the motorway when a motorcycle is coming up fast from behind in the outside lane?”

Driverless car by Tesla on a motorway

Tesla's Autopilot is only suited for highways

The sensors are not infallible, and in the first fatal incident involving automated technology, Tesla’s “Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

If these innovations are designed with riders in mind, automated technology should be fine for riders, as long as they are tested in all scenarios.


Are researchers cutting corners in testing?

The only way to ensure maximum safety is through a thorough and strict testing regime. However, currently there is no evidence that every vehicle detection system is being tested for scenarios involving motorbikes. Surprisingly, there are also no government regulations for researchers to do so.

The government only require researchers to follow a suggested code of practice which doesn’t include any specific requirements or procedures for motorcyclists. The only suggestion is that “vehicle sensor and control systems should be sufficiently developed to be capable of appropriately responding to all types of road user”.

Anna noted that it is a cause for concern, particularly with the government’s desire for the UK to become a world leader in this field. “Dolf Willigers, for FEMA, and I are both bringing up the issue of testing at every opportunity.”

“So far, all too often the question “Have you tested this with motorcycles?” results in the answer “Er – no”.”


Other technologies that could benefit motorcyclists

It isn’t just Knight Rider’s 21st Century cousin being made for our roads; some other technologies might be more directly beneficial to riders. Furthermore, as driver-assist systems are less invasive, they might be adopted more widely.

In fact, Jaguar Land Rover insists that cars will never become driverless; “autonomous technologies will instead work in the background to assist and enhance.”

Anna said: “There is a lot more in the pipeline than just driverless cars. In the future our bikes and riding gear may come equipped with a number of C-ITS (Co-operative Intelligent Transport Systems) applications. Information such as speed limits or road conditions will be supplied to riders via audio and displays of some kind.”

Computer server roomIn what is essentially an internet of the road, data can be communicated between the infrastructure and vehicles. By analysing real-time traffic conditions, a C-ITS could improve road safety, reduce congestion and even benefit the environment. Another proposal is to communicate Highways England alerts directly to riders or drivers even before they pass any information boards.

Later this year, Jaguar Land Rover will trial such a system on roads near Coventry and Warwickshire. Peter Virk, Jaguar Land Rover director of connected technologies, predicted: “In less than three years…every car sold in the world will be a connected car.”

Last year, the BMF’s Graeme Hay also described a concept that is intended to specifically help motorcycles:

“The next development that I have been looking at with folks from Thatcham [Research Centre – vehicle safety technology experts] 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.”

Neither of these driver-assist systems would take the driver “out of the loop” which is one of the biggest dangers in automated vehicles. When driverless cars hand control back to a human, the driver still needs to be aware of the road conditions at that moment.

Anna said: “I personally have some concern that human behaviour on hand back could be compromised unless the driver is actually paying attention to the road for long enough before hand back.”

“The recent Tesla fatalities in the US would probably have been avoided if the drivers had been paying full attention to the road. This might be largely eliminated by programming the car not to hand back (but steer to and stop in a position of safety) if it detects that the human is not ready to take over.”

Driver-assist technology cannot eliminate human error altogether – the argument for fully-autonomous vehicles.


How will motorcyclists integrate with driverless vehicles?

A driverless car will be just another vehicle on the road to the motorcyclist,” said Anna. “If your motorcycle doesn’t have C-ITS equipment, then I'm not sure that there can be much change in the way a rider needs to stay aware of the road environment.”

On the flip-side, motorcyclists will be just another unpredictable factor for driverless cars which could lead to other issues. Riders will have to learn to share the road with computers.


To the future?

the future signEven if driverless vehicles don’t become mainstream, the research and technological developments behind them could provide many opportunities for additional safety systems within vehicles.

It is clear that automated vehicles will be commercially available on our roads within the coming years. While road safety experts may be attracted by the predictability computers can provide, autonomous vehicles will still be sharing the road with human riders and drivers who aren’t.

Whatever technology is created, it is important that it is thoroughly tested for motorcyclists and, as Anna explained, “a healthy sense of paranoia will be a pre-requisite for riders for a good while yet.”

Do you think driveless cars will be a benefit or danger to our roads in the future?

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For more information, visit our previous post about driverless vehicles.


Hidden cons?

Despite the safety benefits automation could provide, some people are concerned that they could cause wide disruption in other industry sectors.

hgv lorry on motorwayDespite the potential creation of 320,000 jobs, the 285,000 HGV drivers in the UK and 2.2 million people employed in the industry are likely to become unemployed, surplus to robotic transport. This doesn’t even include taxi drivers, delivery drivers, coaches or public transport drivers who will certainly be affected too. It is likely that traffic police numbers will also reduce as road patrolling becomes less essential.

Another factor is that these latest innovations could actually increase pollution. Driverless cars could encourage those who otherwise wouldn’t commute or instead use public transport.

The University of Leeds suggested we could see up to a 60% increase in the energy consumed by cars due to people using them in situations where they would currently travel by other means. The pollution impact could be further multiplied by a reduction in car efficiency caused by higher speed limits because of safer cars and the weight of additional equipment like TV screens.



Image credits:

Top image: By Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped and resized.

Tesla car: author pasa47. Resized. Under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence via Wikipedia

Computer server room: By The National Archives (UK) (The National Archives (UK). Resized [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The future: author buckaroobay, resized, available from here, under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

HGV: Copyright © John Carver and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Resized.