A significant increase in road safety will be one of the main benefits of autonomous vehicles. With 95% of road accidents currently being caused by driver error, the overall number of accidents should plummet once the technology becomes sufficiently sophisticated. But are other, potentially more vulnerable, road users being forgotten?
This article highlights the risks that self-driving vehicles may pose to pedestrians and cyclists as they become more prevalent on our streets. The thing that these vulnerable road users really need to know is whether or not the approaching car has seen them. Taking the human driver out of the equation will remove the visual cues that they currently provide, which means we will need to find different ways to tell pedestrians that they’ve been spotted.
Some of the methods for conveying this information will centre on the autonomous cars themselves – for example, last year Nissan revealed a prototype that used lights to communicate its intentions to pedestrians. Google is looking at using electronic signage on the vehicle's exterior or installing speakers to issue audible messages. There's also a role for governments, both in regulating the technology and in ensuring the underlying infrastructure is sufficiently sophisticated to maximise safety.
Alongside the risks, there's a wealth of opportunities. To take advantage, vehicle manufacturers and technology providers need to look at autonomous driving from a broad perspective – they can outclass the competition by producing cutting-edge safety systems that benefit all road users. Other parts of the technology sector may benefit from these opportunities too. For example, safety components can be integrated into the burgeoning world of wearable tech, bringing the connected vehicle and the connected human closer together.
Self-driving cars hold enormous promise for reducing road deaths, unclogging cities of congestion and freeing up public space such as parking lanes and multi-storey car parks. But as more of these intelligent machines take to our roads, the safety of vulnerable road users will become a more pressing issue.