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Bicyclists prefer to share the road with autonomous vehicles over humans


Last updated 2/22/2019 at 4:03pm

Shortly after Uber began testing Semi-Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) on Pittsburgh’s streets in September 2016, Bike Pittsburgh launched a survey to capture how Pittsburghers who bike and walk feel about sharing the road with this new technology.

Two years later, BikePGH relaunched the survey to see how Pittsburghers impressions of AV technology have changed.

“The first survey results surprised us when it revealed that Pittsburghers actually felt slightly more comfortable sharing the road with AVs than they did with human drivers,” said Eric Boerer, BikePGH advocacy director who created and managed the survey. “However, we also discovered that incidents happened and people had no place to share their experiences.”

This led to BikePGH developing the Submit Autonomous Vehicle Experience (SAVE) form to offer bicyclists and pedestrians a place to submit these edge cases.

Initial 2017 survey responses found many people in Pittsburgh have experienced close calls, such as AVs passing bicyclists within less than four-feet, or failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, both required by state law. In 2019, there were several responses about Railroad Street in the Strip District, where BikePGH found a pattern of AVs creating a dangerous situation by passing people on bikes too closely as they attempted to ride over train tracks.

“The sheer number of AVs in the Strip District has increased potential conflict for people on bikes,” says Mr. Boerer, “There is a clear need for dedicated bike facilities in the Strip District. They help both human and robot drivers share the road with people on bikes.”

Since Uber’s AV program launched in 2016, several more companies have begun testing in Pittsburgh, the State of Pennsylvania passed Autonomous Vehicle Testing Guidance, and most significantly, an AV struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, a pedestrian walking with a bicycle in Tempe, Arizona.

Elected leaders play a key role in ensuring Pittsburgher’s safety by setting the terms for how the companies operate that are conducting autonomous vehicle research on our streets. While people were in favor of AV companies sharing more data with the city, there were many people unsure about imposing speed limits and other regulations on the companies.

“What seems to be clear is that we all need to work harder to educate the public,” said Mr. Boerer. “That’s one of the goals with this report, to spark conversation and dialogue around what it means to share the road with a developing technology that has the potential in the long term to save thousands of lives, but has potentially deadly consequences in the short term.”

Bike Pittsburgh’s 2019 survey aims to analyze how the landscape has changed, and how Pittsburghers on bike and on foot feel about sharing the road with AVs. “It’s important to keep an eye on this roll out,” says Mr. Boerer, “so that we’re all better prepared to make sure that it is introduced to our streets as safely as humanly possible.”

Key takeaways from the survey were:

Sharing the Road – First identified in our 2017 survey, people still feel safer “sharing the road” with AVs versus human drivers. This may be tapping into the frustrations that people have with human drivers.

Death of Elaine Herzberg – The death of Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, AZ negatively affected people’s opinion about sharing the road with AVs. However, there was a clear trend in how the tragedy didn’t affect their opinion of AV technology in general, but soured their opinion of Uber, and how the company handled it.

Regulations – People are clearly in favor of requiring AV companies to share useful information, including safety related incidents, with the appropriate authorities. It is less clear how people feel about regulations that prescribe what the companies can and can’t do during testing.

Edge Cases – In 2017, we identified some patterns that we found problematic. Specifically, there were several reports of AVs passing at less than the four-feet required by law. This comment was few and far between in 2019. However, there are several specific comments about AVs, who are impatiently passing people on bikes while riding on Railroad Street in the Strip District, leaving us to question whether humans are better able to deduce odd scenarios, or “edge cases” than computers.

Policy Recommendations – Whether city, state, or federal, elected representatives are the ones who can enact policy to ensure that the public remains safe, while still allowing companies to develop their technology.


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