Promoting Active Transportation Safety in Preparation for Autonomous Vehicles

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Autonomous shuttle pilots and projects are in action throughout the country. Image source: Mobility e3

By: Kristen O’Toole, AICP , Catrine Machi, AICP, LCI, and Jean Crowther, AICP Alta Planning + Design

The race to develop and deploy fully autonomous vehicles (AV) is on, but how does the safety of people outside of the vehicle factor in? How do current strategies to prioritize safe and convenient travel by walking, bicycling, and transit relate to a world involving AVs? The widespread use of AVs may lie in the future, but local, regional, and state governments can influence safety today.

Types of Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are capable of sensing their environments and moving with little or no human input. Possible types of AVs are categorized depending on their speed and use. Some examples:

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Autonomous shuttle pilots and projects are in action throughout the country. Image source: Mobility e3
  • Low speed AVs (LSAV), will likely operate on trails and fixed routes, while high occupancy LSAVs, such as shuttles, will likely operate on both fixed routes and flexible routes in order to pick up many passengers. Similar to existing public transit, these vehicles are being developed for campuses and other similar environments.
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Autonomous shuttle pilots and projects are in action throughout the country. Image source: Mobility e3
  • High speed AVs (HSAV) are designed to operate on public roadways, including highways. Technology and transportation professionals have proposed many theories about how these vehicles will operate, from functioning as a paid rideshare model, to functioning as privately owned vehicles, or a combination of the two.
  • Autonomous trains, ferries, and freight vehicles are also in various stages of development.

These new types of mobility options are becoming increasingly common on public roadways. Pilot projects and testing are occurring in communities across the country and research is being conducted on autonomous services for retirement community residents, partial/conditional automation available in consumer vehicles, and autonomous ridesourcing in several cities. In California, legal testing without the presence of a human “safety” driver is taking place.

Could AVs Save and Improve Lives?

Nearly 40,000 people died in fatal vehicle crashes in 2017. More than 90 percent were attributed to human driver-related factors. AVs have the potential to assist in reducing loss of life from crashes, but safety benefits shouldn’t be assumed. The burden of proof must be on AV developers to interpret human behavior, reactions, and the natural and built environment, including people outside of the vehicle. AVs have the potential to assist in reaching Vision Zero traffic fatality reduction goals, but this will not be a natural byproduct unless safety is being actively sought.

What Can Local, Regional, and State Governments Do Today?

Local, regional, and state governments can help structure AV development and deployment through the following areas. Download our white paper to learn about short-term recommendations that can help prepare for future scenarios:

  • Testing requirements that establish clear standards for technology’s ability to anticipate and respond to the movements of people using active transportation outside of AVs.
  • Street design to promote active transportation and prevent crashes, especially severe and fatal injury-causing crashes without putting the burden of safety on people using active transportation.
  • Policy choices that preserve the rights of people using active transportation and consider equity in access to the transportation system

Has your community started to prepare for the deployment of AVs? Tell us what you’re doing to ensure the safety of all road users in the comments below.