Outbluffing robocars?

I’ve read a very interesting article about the insurance and liability aspects of robocars.

This post expands on a comment I posted on the author’s blog.

I think that the question of interaction of robocars with pedestrians, bicyclists and human motorists deserves deep scrutiny. As the author describes, a robocar is cautiously going to attempt to avoid collisions — but humans break laws, play bluff and take risks. That means, for example, that a robocar will stop for a pedestrian illegally stepping off the curb, or a car inching out from a stop sign, or a bicyclist riding against traffic — while a human driver might blow the horn and expect the pedestrian to retreat, the motorist to stop, or the bicyclist to dart into a parking space. A game of give and take, — or if you prefer, “chicken” — occurs in such situations — where both participants take stock of their ability to avoid a crash if the other keeps moving, and one or the other — usually the one who is breaking the law — gives way to the other. I see the potential for robocars to bring mixed traffic to a stop, because humans will outbluff them. Where does this lead? To robocars’ being allowed only on limited-access highways, where traffic conditions are uncomplicated? To traffic in urban areas being reduced to the speed of bicyclists, because robocars are more cautious about overtaking than humans are? To banning bicyclists, pedestrians and human motorists from roads where robocars are permitted to operate robotically?

5 responses to “Outbluffing robocars?

  1. That would be true if robocars were ubiquitous. However, I think the tech will probably be confined to a small niche in the luxury car market, and at current artificial intelligence levels, I think any rollout of a robocar concept will be a failure for some of the reasons you mention. Robocars will be virtually useless in city traffic and will be more of a frustration to the robocar’s occupant (and every road user around him).

    Eventually, robocars may be a force to be reckoned with on roads, but I think we’re a long way – decades – from that. In the meantime, I think they’ll roll out bits of the tech on a piecemeal basis, such as the self-parking car.

    As for banning cyclists and pedestrians from roads where robocars can operate, I think we’ll have reached an era where pedestrians and cyclists have more political clout before that happens. The age of cheap energy is all but over, and the automobile – a hugely inefficient people-mover – will be one of the first casualties of the long decline.

  2. Also, I doubt robocars will even work on limited access highways. If a robocar leaves the requisite stopping distance between it and the car in front, there will be two human drivers more than willing to jump into that gap to gain an advantage. This will cause the robocar to brake and slow traffic behind the robocar to a crawl.

    I think the robocar will only ever work when every car is a robocar. If humans are in the mix, the concept dies very quickly.

  3. Good thoughts, Ian.

    There’s another type of interaction I neglected to describe, one rooted in courtesy rather than bluff games. One person may make a request of another, who courteously yields right of way even though this isn’t required by law. This happens, for example, when a driver signals the desire to merge into line, and another driver makes room — or when a driver is waiting to exit a driveway across a line of slow-moving vehicles, and a driver in that line stops to leave a gap — only of importance if there wouldn’t be a gap otherwise — evaluating which is rather complicated compared with only evaluating one’s own responsibilities under the traffic law. How will robocars know to judge when to be courteous? As this applies to bicyclists, will robocars know to interpret a bicycle’s hand signal as a desire to merge into line, and grant the request? And to pedestrians: will robocars know to be extra-courteous to the mother pushing a baby in a stroller, or the elderly person who walks slowly?

  4. When people stop seeing vehicles as extensions of their own bodies, they will lose some interest in shaving seconds at the risk to others. So people on foot may well get more aggressive, but people in cars won’t care as much. Yay.

  5. There’s lots to be said about that.

    First, about the distance mentioned by Ian Brett Cooper: robocars would be no worst than heavy truck in that respect and also, since they would never lack concentration and have all the anticipating ability provided by servo-controls, the “safe distance” could be considerably reduced.

    Second, until all cars are robocars, I would expect to be driven in a sort of expanded cruise control mode, where I still, would be required to make decisions like when to accelerate after a stop or red light, when to override the controls to let someone in the lane.

    Only when all cars are robocars could some sort of close range communication and decision making be negociated between cars, to let someone pass, or cut-in a lane.

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