There is a lot of chat about driverless cars-but this article from the New York Times and this one in the Atlantic Monthly identify a fear that is being expressed by many-how will driverless cars interact with those pesky uncontrollable pedestrians who will want to cross streets and otherwise get in the way? How do you build trust and share the road from the perspective of the driverless car passenger and  those on foot or bicycle?

Drive.ai a California start-up is figuring out how a driverless car would communicate with other cars, and those pedestrians. John Markoff notes in his article

The company is emphasizing what is known in the artificial intelligence field as “human-machine interaction” as a key to confusing road situations.How does a robot, for example, tell everyone what it plans to do in intersections when human drivers and people in crosswalks go through an informal ballet to decide who will go first and who will yield?


There are five situations discussed  where driverless technology is being challenged.You can control the behaviour of a driverless car, but what if it interacts with a car driven by a real human, subject to split second decisions and thought patterns? And what happens on snowy or icy roads when laser sensors may not compute where the road surface is. For a technology that is based on GPS, a temporary detour or a changed traffic pattern  on a road could be an obstacle. Couple that with potholes that sensors cannot read and may be  misinterpreted on the road surface. Lastly, and perhaps the most crucial in a life and death situation, does the car save its occupants, or does it sacrifice its occupants to avoid hitting a group of pedestrians? And who will make these ethical calls on autonomous car performance?

This year Drive.ai was licensed in California to road test driverless cars, and is relying on “deep learning” technology which is  “a machine-learning technique that has gained wide popularity among Silicon Valley firms. It is used for a variety of tasks, like understanding human speech and improving the ability to recognize objects in computer vision systems.”

Drive.ai plans to revolutionize commercial vehicles for parcel delivery and taxi services.But in these investigations of new driverless cars (and there are over 20 initiatives with this technology in Silicon Valley alone) there is still no cogent discussion on street design or active transportation movement for bicyclists and pedestrians. It would seem to me that cities and citizens need to have an active say in how driverless technology will or will not impact city streets and the ability of people to randomly walk or cycle across streets. There is not much information on how this technology will interface with  community liveliness and street use. It’s an important subject and I’d like to see it addressed.

As stated in Markoff’s article quoting a roboticist

“A lot of the discussion around self-driving cars has no human component, which is really weird because this is the first time a robotic system is going out in the world and interacting with people.”