Could driverless cars halve motorcycle accidents?

Michael Mann - Web Editor, Bike Social
By Michael Mann
MannOnABike Web editor of Bike Social. Been riding bikes since he was four-years-old. Fast and smooth road rider, just about hangs on in a track day quick group.
  • Driverless or autonomous cars to begin testing on UK roads
  • Government announces testing to begin in January 2015
  • Legislation being developed
  • BMF, MAG and MCIA have technology concerns
  • Bike Social investigates

The Government has announced that autonomous, or ‘driverless’ cars will begin testing on UK roads from the beginning of next year with testing taking between 18-36 months but what does that mean for motorcyclists?

Business Secretary Vince Cable climbs into a driverless car

Instead of ‘Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You’, within three years we could be riding in a much safer environment and there’s every possibility that ‘It’s Ok Mate, My Car Saw You’ will be a very welcome change to the industry-recognised SMIDSY phrase.

According to research by BikeLawyer.co.uk, figures show that 48% of crashes between motorcycles and cars were the result of the car driver failing to look properly. Therefore the most important assurance we, vulnerable road users, should be seeking is: If driverless or autonomous cars are the future then will they be sufficiently tested and programmed to avoid any form of collision where they could be deemed to be at fault?

Often when we ride in slow traffic, we filter. Some vehicles move aside to create an easier passage. When we move the front of a queue at traffic lights, road works or a level crossing the real human driver acknowledges this. Would this be the action of a robotic or GPS system?

What can be certain is that any testing and development of such extremely sophisticated technology will take other road users into account. What we can’t be certain of are faulty systems, connectivity drop out or the bigger manufacturers outbidding the smaller ones for bandwidth favourability.

Looking at the information currently available to the public, it's still early days and we have to hope the testing process involves scrutiny from members of the motorcycle industry. Currently none have been contacted. We spoke to some of those representatives for their initial views:

The Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA) remains wary. Karen Cole, Director of Safety and Training, told Bike Social, “We need to understand how driverless cars will be programmed to take vulnerable road users into account, before being able to work out how it will affect motorcyclists. 

Meanwhile, the British Motorcycling Federation (BMF) is more than just wary. Anna Zee, BMF Chairman, told us, “There may be benefits but we have major concerns about system failures in the cars. Until those concerns can be addressed we do not accept the safety claims made by the manufacturers and government. The BMF's position generally with regard to all ITS systems in vehicles is that at minimum they must not preclude vehicles not so equipped from using any roads and they must not constitute any danger to vulnerable road users.”

We also spoke to former MP, Lembit Opik, who is now Director of Communications at the Motorcycle Action Group (MAG). He also voiced concerns over current technology and said, "MAG welcomes anything that genuinely improves road safety, especially in relation to vulnerable road users.  We are not yet convinced that driverless cars will achieve that goal in the near future. Essentially, it all depends on the technology, but it’s currently not apparent how current technology available would effectively deal with all unexpected situations."

Vince Cable in the passenger seat while a non-driving driver doesn't take the wheel

How will the testing work?

Using complex, high-tech GPS systems and laden with sensors, the driverless cars will be on the roads and around us from as early as January 2015. Trials will take place in three UK cities who will share a £10million fund to cover their hosting costs. Those cities will be announced in due course and the brains behind the operation, Business Secretary Vince Cable, is encouraging cities to put forward their proposals with the resulting testing period expected to last between 18-36 months.

The two areas of driverless technology which will be covered in the review are:

  1. Cars with a qualified driver who can take over the controls
  2. Fully autonomous vehicle where there is no driver

The review will also take regulatory requirements into consideration such as vehicle compliance with construction and safety regulations, traffic laws and relevant aspects of the Highway Code, as well as licensing, liability and insurance and driverless regulations being put in place in other countries. The results of this part of the review will be published at the end of 2014.

A Department for Transport spokesperson told Bike Social, “Safety concerns for all road users are paramount and will be considered in the review. We are responsible for the development of legislation and are reacting to manufacturers developing their own technology.

The announcement took place yesterday at MIRA - home of the controlled 'City Circuit' environment - where Mr Cable said, “The excellence of our scientists and engineers has established the UK as a pioneer in the development of driverless vehicles through pilot projects. Today’s announcement will see driverless cars take to our streets in less than 6 months, putting us at the forefront of this transformational technology and opening up new opportunities for our economy and society.”

The future is upon us and the theory of reducing motorcycle accidents by 48% could be phenomenal but at this early stage of testing there are many more questions and concerns than answers.

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