Autonomous Vehicles (or AVs) were to make life easier with less road crashes and carnage. Nearly 38,000 people in the United States are annually killed on roads, and that number is rising. Autonomous vehicles would enable transportation for people who did not have drivers’ licences, and also dealt with the pesky problem of  drivers getting older. Statistics Canada figures from 2009 show that almost 28 per cent of drivers over the age of 65 are driving with some form of dementia. Autonomous vehicles would allow everyone to be mobile that could afford to use their services.

Transportation experts have continually pointed out that despite the positives of universal access to AVs there are some fundamental problems. Autonomous vehicles do not get rid of congestion, they just add to it. And while there may be less parked cars in downtowns and in cities, the streets may be designed to allow for the flow of autonomous vehicles and may not be inclusive of active transportation users such as cyclists and pedestrians. Perhaps that is the fundamental question: are we so engaged by this shiny new technology that human-powered active transportation and human based design of place and cities will be suppressed for the latest iteration of motordom?

In Tempe Arizona a homeless lady with her bicycle was struck and killed by an autonomous Uber. Sadly as reported in City Lab  by David Alpert, the police reported that the lady was not in a crosswalk, and the fatal road violence was blamed upon the dead victim. Nine other pedestrians had died in Arizona that week, but this death, by an autonomous vehicle was the one that garnered attention. But if all road deaths are reduced by 90 per cent, is that a reason to embrace this technology? “The woman was, indeed, not in a crosswalk. Bizarrely, there is a direct, curving brick path through the area, but it’s strictly ornamental: Pedestrians are forbidden from using it, and there are multiple signs posted to tell people not to use the path. The path follows what seems to be the most logical route to a nearby bus stop, and crosses the roads at narrower (and thus less harrowing) spots than the official crosswalk, which requires traversing seven lanes, counting turn lanes.This is the engineering reality of much of Tempe, and much of suburban America: Designers create inhospitable environments in which to walk, then try to prohibit walking in the least inhospitable parts of those environments. And often, when someone is killed, police rush to exonerate the driver.”

The Federation of International Pedestrians has been resolute in saying that no death is acceptable, and has insisted that autonomous vehicles be programmed to save all road users, not just the ones in the vehicle. There is an interest in adopting edicts like “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities” which prioritizes people’s lives over the vehicle occupants. But as Alpert observes “We can insist that any pedestrian death is not acceptable, just as we do for aviation, where all incidents are studied intently, and commercial aviation deaths worldwide have plummeted from 2,469 people in 55 crashes in 1972 to just 44 fatalities—and none in a passenger jet—worldwide in 2017. There have been zero deaths on U.S. airlines since 2009.” 

It is time to stop justifying deaths on roads because of “speed” or “convenience”.  “Let this, the first recorded pedestrian killed by an autonomous car, set a better example for what we expect of our roads, and the technologies transforming them.”