Why a Leading Cycling Advocacy Group Is Optimistic About Autonomous Vehicles
As autonomous vehicle use grows, AV companies and the League of American Bicyclists are collaborating on how to ensure cyclists and motorists can share the roads safely, even if the “motorist” is artificial intelligence software.
As part of the League’s mission to make roads safer, Ken McLeod, its policy director, has worked with Argo AI, a leading autonomous products and services company headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to develop industry-first guidelines for how autonomous vehicles should behave around cyclists.
Since the release in 2021, McLeod has been fielding feedback from the cycling community and engaging in discussions that he hopes will make roadways safer. McLeod said he’s been getting positive feedback on the guidelines.
“We’ve heard from the bicycling community about how glad they are to have these guidelines out there,” he said. “There’s also a lot of people who are excited that the guidelines plan for bicyclists acting like bicyclists. It’s taking bicyclists as we are, and ensuring we’re safe even when we do human things that may be less predictable.”
The need for greater cyclist safety is urgent. The National Safety Council reports preventable deaths from bicycle transportation have increased by more than 40 percent over the past decade, and according to the National Highway Safety Administration, 2020 was the deadliest year for U.S. cyclists — with 932 fatalities — since 1990.
McLeod watches these issues as closely as anyone can. Statistics for 2021 are still being finalized, but McLeod isn’t optimistic as initial figures indicate a 10 percent increase in cyclist fatalities.
“It may be tied to more driving,” McLeod said, noting that increases in cyclist fatalities pre-date the pandemic to counter assumptions that a pandemic-era cycling boom may have fueled an increase in fatalities.
Adapting to Innovation
If any form of transportation can adjust to innovation and change, it’s the bicycle. The League of American Bicyclists itself has been around since 1880, seeing the introduction and adoption of daily-use vehicles, the retirement of street cars, the implementation of light rail and now the use of self-driving technology — not to mention the numerous innovations the bike itself has experienced in the form of ultralight materials, aerodynamic styles, and now e-bikes or power-assist bikes.
Today, cyclists share roads with self-driving vehicles, electric scooters, hoverboards and other forms of micromobility. Through 2020 and early 2021, cycling boomed in response to pandemic lockdowns, as year-over-year sales increased by about $1 billion, and interest in the sport has waned only a bit, remaining notably above pre-pandemic levels, according to Statista.
“This is the time for a full-court press for safety,” McLeod said, referencing the unprecedented federal funding available to local governments that could improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians. “We want to see traffic deaths go down. Basically, all of Europe and Canada have seen decreases in traffic deaths, while the U.S. has seen increases. It would be great for autonomous vehicles to be part of that.”
The guidelines aim to be a step toward this improved safety. They classify cyclists as a distinct object group in terms of how autonomous vehicles perceive the world, as in a person plus an object with a spoked wheel or two or three. They anticipate typical cyclist behavior, and prepare for and proactively slow down for uncertain situations. In addition, the guidelines state that self-driving systems drive in a consistent and understandable way that cyclists, and others, can anticipate, and utilize intel informed by known infrastructure and laws.
For example, an Argo AV traveling at about 30 mph will seek to provide 4 to 5 feet of lateral distance when passing a cyclist, and about 70 feet when following a cyclist. While these distances may not always be achievable in every instance due to the variability of road markings, traffic congestion, and the actions of other roadway actors such as pedestrians and human-driven motor vehicles, they provide cyclists with assurance that AVs are designed to look out for their safety and drive responsibly in specific, expected ways.
Those foundational guidelines, coupled with an AV’s ability to adhere to safety practices like obeying the speed limit, never looking away or getting distracted, have the potential to foster trust between self-driving technology and the cycling community.
“Following the speed limit, not being distracted, not being drunk. These are baseline things AVs will just do. Those basic behaviors have huge potential to reduce traffic deaths,” McLeod said. “Speeding is related to 30 percent of traffic fatalities in the U.S. Just getting that one behavior right has huge potential.”
“Potential, McLeod said, also lies in the implementation of transportation plans that embrace local cycling communities. While 42 U.S. states have adopted a cycling-informed transportation plan, McLeod said many developed plans have not yet been implemented.”
The plans are vital to safety, which is one of the reasons the AV-cyclist guidelines are so impactful. They lay a foundation, transform concepts into commitments, and allow the cycling community to know they are seen, literally by the vehicles, and figuratively by the teams working on those vehicles.