Until recently, driverless cars were the stuff of science-fiction movies. But many experts predict they could be the norm on our roads within the next twenty years. So what does this mean for motorcyclists?
While many motorcyclists consider driverless cars a threat to their autonomy on the road, it is unlikely that such technology will mean the end for motorcycle riders or their safety.
The end of SMIDSY
What we can expect is an unprecedented era of safety for motorcyclists. Cars driven by humans are at fault in up to 70% of motorcycle crashes with other vehicles. But driverless cars don’t get drunk, tired, exercise road rage or get distracted by Facebook or other social media. They use sophisticated sensors to detect surrounding vehicles, road markings and other road users, including motorcyclists.
The car’s computer analyses the sensor data, and in a split second, can apply the steering, acceleration and brakes to avoid a crash. These sophisticated sensors see far more, and respond a lot more quickly than a human is capable of.
Imagine riding to work, lane filtering between cars that act uniformly, and predictably, know exactly where your bike is (no matter how highly visible your clothing is) and will never pull out in front of you. The guilty driver’s utterance of “sorry mate I didn’t see you” might become a phrase of the past.
Motorcyclists are also likely to be able to take advantage of driverless technology. By tapping into driverless cars’ sensor technology, and using tools such as dashboard displays and warning sounds, a rider can be alerted to hazards such as loose gravel around an upcoming curve, or a pedestrian about to step on to the road.
Beyond this, Honda and Yamaha are already working on ‘connected motorcycles’ that would wirelessly “talk” to cars, other bikes and road infrastructure, maximising traffic flow and avoiding collisions. Riders will also be able to breathe easier knowing that the handlebar won’t be taken over by a robot just yet, with Yamaha’s Chief Executive Hiroyuki Yanagi recently assuring riders that the current focus is on using technology to assist the rider, not on taking the riding task away.
Robots versus riders
This technology does, however, bring risks to motorcyclists. Car manufacturers won’t necessarily have motorcyclists at the forefront of their minds in the design and rollout of driverless car technology. One of the key issues will be how driverless cars understand and respond to rider behaviour.
Human drivers often read riders’ body language and hand signals when making decisions on the road. Conversely, riders are used to predicting human driver behaviour such as suddenly braking when a light turns from orange to red. It may be that riders need the opportunity for exposure to driverless cars in safe environments to familiarise themselves with their behaviour, before they are introduced on our roads.
Programming to kill
One of the hardest issues to grapple with about driverless cars is how they will be programmed in the event of an unavoidable accident. Imagine a driverless car is faced with a scenario where it has only two options: don’t swerve and kill a motorcyclist, or swerve into a wall and kill the human occupant.
What should the car be programmed to do? Or what if a car is faced with two motorcyclists, one wearing a helmet and one who is not, how will it choose which one to swerve into? Should the car hit the person with a helmet because the injury risk might be less, even though this means penalising the rider who took extra precautions? There are no simple answers to these questions and manufacturers will have to think carefully about how their cars are programmed to respond in such situations.
But driverless cars will be on the road before we know it. Motorcyclists stand to benefit from the increased safety they are likely to bring, but will need to ensure their voice is heard amongst the driverless din.