By Steff Thomas
July 19 — Pedestrians and bicyclists want to be part of the conversation once cars start talking to each other.
Federal regulators shouldn't forget about pedestrians and bicyclists when they roll out guidelines later this summer for the use of vehicle-to-vehicle communications and driverless technology, advocacy groups such as the League for American Bicyclists say. Several companies, including Honda, Toyota and Google, are already testing technology that would use microchips in cell phones to allow autonomous vehicles to communicate with pedestrians and bicycle riders.
Ken McLeod, state and local policy manager at the bicyclists league, said the development of self-driving vehicles that can communicate with other vehicles and the highway infrastructure has the potential to make sharing the roads safer—if the mistakes of past generations are not repeated.
“The biggest problem for bicyclists and pedestrians is that connected and automated vehicles lead to roads designed exclusively for connected and automated vehicles, as we saw over the last century where roads were designed exclusively for motor vehicles and people outside of motorcycles were an afterthought,” McLeod told Bloomberg BNA. “The shift to connected and autonomous vehicles has the potential to be the defining shift for transportation over the next century and it would be a shame if we did not learn any lessons from the auto-centric policies of the last century.”
Pedestrians and bicyclists understand that initial guidelines the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to roll out this summer will focus mainly on vehicle-to-vehicle technology, McLeod said (See previous story, 06/30/16).
“The hesitancy to prescribe a specific solution should not be taken to mean that the safety of bicyclists, pedestrians, and other non-occupants should not be a high priority for government agencies, manufacturers and technology companies,” McLeod said. “But most people feel it is premature to make specific recommendations about regulations or technology that should be required to protect bicyclists and pedestrians.”
NHTSA has not yet released specifics on the forthcoming guidelines, but notes from the agency’s public meetings have addressed a need for crash-avoidance capability as well as technology that would allow autonomous vehicles to identify and avoid pedestrians and other road users.
“Unprotected road users are always a focus of our safety mission, so it’s absolutely fair to say that they will continue to be considered in future policies and regulations,” NHTSA Communications Director Bryan Thomas told Bloomberg BNA (See previous story, 07/06/16).
Honda Research and Development Americas Inc. has been working with the University of Michigan's M-City team to test cell phone technology, the Honda unit's Chief Engineer Jim Keller told Bloomberg BNA. Students at the Ann Arbor campus have been asked to participate in the study by testing microchips built into LG Electronics and Verizon Communication phones.
Keller said the chips would be programmed to warn both the pedestrian or bicyclist and the vehicle when a collision was imminent, instructing the car to use the automatic braking system already installed in many Honda vehicles.
“We are still trying to understand what the limits of the [vehicle-to-pedestrian] technology are and unfortunately with cell phones, the GPS accuracy is not as precise as it is with vehicles,” Keller said. “So we are conducting research and experiments that will help us understand the true potential, as well as limitations, of this possible lifesaving technology and whether it holds the promise that we think it does.”
Keller said the cell phone chips would operate within a slice of the broadcast spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission set aside in 1999 for auto safety technology.
Bicycle and pedestrian groups are mainly worried about three things: possible technology failure during the transition, the inability to communicate with automated cars and an undermining of efforts to promote biking and walking as equal modes of transportation, McLeod said.
Keller said Honda will ensure that while even its standard vehicles in the future will come with the vehicle-to-vehicle technology, use will be optional.
“It is not our intention to push any technology on drivers that are not ready,” Keller said. “It's still research-level, but we've been pretty aggressive compared to our competitors by working with a whole suite of technology that keeps the driver in the loop.”
Despite enthusiasm for automated technology, some bike and pedestrian advocates worry that connected vehicle technology could shift responsibility away from cars and their drivers should something go wrong.
More than 60 percent of pedestrians and bicyclists who responded to an informal, unscientific survey that the League for American Bicyclists conducted using social media in 2014 said they would support self-driving vehicle technology if it reduced the likelihood of being struck by a car. But 43 percent of the 357 self-selected respondents said they didn't have enough information to know whether connected vehicles would make them safer or more vulnerable.
“Autonomous vehicles offer us an opportunity to invert our current road safety paradigm that presupposes drivers will be drunks and fools, and as such that our vehicles and roadways must be engineered to be forgiving of mistakes,” Mark Plotz, program manager at the National Center for Biking and Walking, told Bloomberg BNA.
“The corollary is our most vulnerable road users—walkers and bikers— are on their own and are expected to be smarter than everyone else if they want to live,” he said.
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