Driverless Cars: Just as Safe for Pedestrians?

There’s no doubt: one of the most revolutionary innovations of the 21st century has got to be self-driving cars (also known as autonomous vehicles or AVs). Though the possibility of self-driving cars has been around for many years, it wasn’t until the Ontario government announced that an official pilot program for driverless vehicles would be launched in 2017 that many folks really began to question what effect this technology could have on our society.

Last November, three organizations were granted permission to begin road testing their AVs: University of Waterloo’s Centre for Automotive Research, Erwin Hymer Group, and QNX. According to the Toronto Star, “the researchers are evaluating how the vehicles operate under various weather and road conditions, speeds and degrees of automation.”

But those performance factors are just the tip of the iceberg when contemplating how driverless cars will integrate within our current transportation system. A recent article in the Globe & Mail takes a thought-provoking look at one lesser-discussed issue related to AV technology: how will AVs interact with humans? Some of those issues are especially important to us as injury lawyers, when thinking about the safety of vulnerable road users:

  • Considering that pedestrians and cyclists make up a disproportionate percentage of traffic injuries and fatalities, will AVs make roads safer for ALL users, or just those behind the wheel?
  • Many groups believe that AVs must be limited to lower speeds in urban areas (about 40km/hour max) – will consumers accept lower speed as a trade-off for increased safety and convenience?
  • How well will AVs and humans on foot or bike interact with each other? Can AVs learn subtle human behaviours such as eye contact and small gestures rather than rely on verbal cues? And even if adult pedestrians can learn new “rules”, what about children?

The Globe & Mail article, Giving power back to pedestrians, is well worth the read, and makes it clear that when it comes to driverless cars, we still have more questions than answers.