2020 vision for self-driving cars — now

Let’s say you just buried another friend from cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, and you’ve decided, that’s it, you’re gonna make small changes to take a little better care of yourself and maybe feel a little happier, too, as you’ve been feeling the weight of the world lately. You’re a retired senior who lives in Brook Farm, an expensive neighborhood on the border of two wealthy cities, and it’s less than a mile to the supermarket and the drug store, so you decide to ride your bike there.

You used to ride a bike — how hard could it be? Sure, there’s no bike lane, and it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk over the age of 12, but the folks passing you in cars are your neighbors, for goodness sake, and there’s a three-feet-to-pass law*. Plus, you’ll wear all that dayglo stuff you bought from REI; and lights, lots of lights; and perhaps even say some prayers out loud that you survive the speeders while you pass two churches along the way. Maybe you’ll get one of those fun new e-bikes so you have a little extra oomph out there on the hills. You might even try #Bike Noodle (see chapter six, Noodle Lady, in my book, Traveling at the Speed of Bike), but no sense looking like a damn fool out there among your Friday Fish Fry friends.

Okay, so, it doesn’t go great (hang in there for the full 11 seconds of the video above and you’ll see a driver pass too closely on this exact route). Add self-driving cars (and other autonomous vehicles like trucks) to the mix now. Think you’re safer? Think the technology will ensure that you’re not hit on your way to pick up a roast chicken for dinner or a Happy Birthday card for your granddaughter, who visits on Saturdays and with whom you walk to the park? Think again. (Tip: Don’t even try to ride a bike to the park — it’s even harder than the supermarket.)

Not only are self-driving cars not currently required to “see” bike riders or pedestrians before being tested (without any public transparency, by the way) in our shared spaces, there is no current requirement about the moral decisions they are being programmed to make in case of road conflict regarding who or what they will prioritize in their decision-making.

Change the circumstances so that you now live in a less-wealthy area with no sidewalks, farther distance between crosswalks when there are sidewalks, less choice as to whether or not non-car travel is an option or a requirement for you, no budget for dayglo and your second job ends late, additional dangers on the streets, increased risk of being stopped by a cop for simply being on the streets, and other impediments to safe-access-for-all, and then add self-driving cars to the mix. Who wins? Who loses? Who lives? Who dies?

These are conversations that need to happen now — especially considering that a 49-year-old woman walking a bike across a street was the first pedestrian death by a self-driving car a couple of days ago in Tempe, Arizona. We must insist that:

  1. Self-driving cars (trucks, etc.) be required to have 2020 vision that enables them to see ALL road users now — not in 2020;
  2. Plus, real-time information regarding how they are being programmed to make moral decisions and when they are being tested on the roads must be publicly transparent;
  3. And those at the table of decision-making must represent all aspects of our society.

We are at a crossroads of change in our nation and world on so many issues. This is one of them. Please continue to get informed, show support for national organizations such as the League of American Bicyclists (click to see its call for action), and state-based ones like PEDS (and bike/ped organizations in your city, wherever you may live). They are doing the heavy lifting to ensure your safety. And that of your granddaughter.

What you don’t want to see in your community is its first (or forth, or fortieth) ghost bike.


Note: And, by the way, let’s stop calling them self-driving cars. They do not have a self. They are not human and do not make decisions on their own. We program them. We are the self.