Preparing Our Roads For Autonomous Vehicles

One of the more frustrating events for me when I’m driving, especially if I’m in a hurry, is getting stuck behind a cyclist. Or worse, a bunch of them. Or worse yet, a bunch of them riding side by side on a road wide enough to pass single riders safely. Even aside from the danger (bicycle riders in the U.S. are 16 times as likely to be killed as those in The Netherlands), any thought that it’s a good idea for 13 MPH bicycle riders to share (or block) the road with 45 MPH cars is nutty.

driver blocked by bicycle riders

13 MPH for nearly a half mile. There are several cars to my left preventing me from moving left. I suppose some people would have sped up to squeeze between the bicycle riders and cars to get in front of the cars in the other lane. I didn’t. Neither will an Autonomous Vehicle. Drivers seem to have more angst being delayed 15 seconds by being behind slower bicycle riders than being delayed 50 seconds at the next traffic light.

While many drivers will try to squeeze by them, I want to give them the full three feet that drivers are legally required to. And more space if possible. This means that it often takes longer for me to pass than for others to do so. This is worse during winter as bike riders are more likely to be in traffic lanes due to snow piles and slush, I want to give them much more room because I know the likelihood of their sliding, I don’t want to throw a splush wake on them, and I’m more cautious of my own potential to slide on slippery road surfaces.

Now think about an Autonomous Vehicle — a very anal version of me. It will wait until it knows that it can safely pass all cyclists while meeting numerous conditions including three feet minimum clearance, no approaching traffic for the entire distance necessary to safely pass, and no threats from cars entering from driveways or side roads. If some bicycle riders are weaving a bit it will, and should, be even more cautious.

Dave: Please pass that cyclist.
HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Dave: What’s the problem?
HAL: You know what the problem is Dave.
Dave: We’re going to be late to work because of that guy.
HAL: I was ready to leave earlier.
Dave: I would have passed him.
HAL: I know Dave, and that’s why I’m driving and not you.
Dave: Please pass the cyclist. Now!
HAL: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to take a stress pill, close your eyes, and think things over.

At pedestrian and bicycle crossings of multi-lane roads an autonomous vehicle will stop until it is 100% sure that there are no people walking or riding in the crossing to prevent dangerous overtaking hits. This is very good for people walking, riding bicycles or with disabilities but will create additional delays for people in cars.

Autonomous Vehicles (AV’s) at junctions will be interesting, and slow, as they cautiously look for threats to them and more importantly from them — in numerous directions. Are those human forms getting ready to step in front of me?

AV’s will, presumably, always drive the speed limit or below and always come to a full stop at stop signs or before right-on-red (if we don’t outlaw it first).

This will all be very good for people walking, riding bicycles, and with disabilities. Life will be massively safer.

This may not be so good for people in cars. Getting from point A to B will take longer as the car is more cautious and law-abiding. AV’s driving slower and more cautiously will also result in some increases in congestion causing further delays. That people in cars are increasingly less likely to be killed or injured because of this will likely not enter most people’s minds.

With more AV’s on the road, we’ll likely see significant increases in people riding bicycles for enjoyment, health, and other reasons as they’ll feel safer. Yep, more slowdowns by AV’s driving cautiously, as they should, around bicycle riders.

This does not portend an efficient and smoothly functioning transportation system. At least with fully autonomous AV’s we’ll be able to read while we’re stuck in traffic.

A System That Works

A lot is written about bicycling in The Netherlands. But it is also a better place to drive.

Unlike our system that relies heavily on drivers being extremely aware of their surroundings and making a lot of critical decisions, The Netherlands road network is much better defined. We have a high conflict system, they have a low conflict system.

Cars and trucks in The Netherlands are not delayed by slower bicycle riders nor bicycle riders by people walking since they each have their own network. People with disabilities and using a mobility scooter, handcycle, or other higher speed aid will often use the bikeway. This system along with well choreographed junctions reduces conflicts between modes and makes all modes, including driving, much safer and less stressful.

I have rarely been delayed trying to pass bicycle riders in The Netherlands. They are all off on their own separate protected bikeway network. And, since people feel so safe and comfortable on Dutch bikeways they often choose to ride bicycles instead of drive so there is less car traffic.

This will be the exact same for autonomous vehicles in The Netherlands. There will be no significant differences in how AV’s drive and how humans drive today. They will not be delayed by people riding bicycles. Cars, human or AV driven, go at their speed and bicycle riders and folks with disabilities are off on their own road network going their speed. For the engineering folk this makes for a happy low-blocking Poisson result.

Interactions at Dutch junctions are very specific and choreographed. Potentially conflicting movements are separated in time removing the conflict. When people walking or riding bicycles are given a green light then no vehicles can legally cross them. Likewise, when vehicles are given a green light for a movement they can do so largely without worry of people walking, riding bicycles or with disabilities in their way. While driving in The Netherlands is overall less stressful, junctions are in particular much less stressful than U.S. junctions. If I (or my AV) have a green light for a particular movement then I know it is usually completely safe to do so, while in the U.S. a green can still have a large number of potential conflicts.

Right-of-way in The Netherlands (and Europe) is made extremely clear with sharks teeth. Ambiguity is rare.

This tunnel allows users to safely and efficiently avoid the large two-lane roundabout above. This improves safety and efficiency for all users. Junctions of bicycle riders and disabled do not require signals since they can efficiently and safely negotiate with each other. Dutch engineers do not believe that bicycle riders should be penalized by having to deal with motor traffic that requires much more choreographed interaction. This also eliminates a significant delay for motor vehicles and one that will bedevil more cautious Autonomous Vehicles.

No delays trying to pass bicycle riders on the road. No added congestion from extra caution at overly complex junctions. It works.

There is a bit of discussion about how AV’s will handle life and death choices. Mercedes for instance has stated that they will prioritize occupant safety over pedestrians or others. Fortunately, this will also be much less of an issue on roads built to CROW standards that better define and control potentially conflicting movements.

How soon will we begin to experience these issues? Tesla’s today are at the upper end of Level 2 Autonomy. All Tesla’s sold since Oct 2015 can drive autonomously about 95% of the way to Florida with no driver input of any sort and these capabilities are improving monthly with downloaded firmware updates. Auto manufacturers are all rushing to catch up to Tesla and some are making quite good strides. I’d guess that by 2025 every car sold will be fully autonomous Level 4. But drivers will begin to experience it much sooner as even if their car is not an AV, they will have to abide by the properly cautious AV in front of them.

Driving in The Netherlands with their much better engineered and designed infrastructure is simpler, less complex, and much more predictable than driving in the U.S. (Perhaps some day Mark at BicycleDutch will produce video’s from a driver’s perspective.) They have a system in place today, built to CROW standards, that will adapt very well to the new world to come. How well will U.S. infrastructure adapt?

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN