Toddler take the wheel

Self-driving mini-bus line in Tallinn, Estonia.

As with most forms of public transit, Europe is far outpacing the United States. Wageningen, Denmark; Helsinki, Finland; and Tallinn, Estonia have all pushed ahead to see what a future of autonomous public transit might look like.

In January 2016, AV mini-buses in the agricultural town of Wageningen drove “back and forth along the side of a lake” at 5mph. They were, however, the first AVs to “operate without a driver, on a public road.” The WePod mini-buses are expected to eventually reach a maximum speed of 15mph.

In late 2016, Helsinki put two AV mini-buses on the road “alongside traffic and commuters.” Like in Wageningen, the buses travel 7mph, although they have the ability to go up to 25mph. Finland is unique in not requiring “vehicles on public roads to have a driver,” meaning the buses could be filled to capacity (of 12) with passengers who had never experienced an AV.

During July and August 2017, two AV mini-buses served “the center of the town” in Tallinn. They went a maximum of 12mph, and just bounced back and forth between two stops. Each bus costed around $100,000.

I think Tallinn is the most interesting example because it shows more clearly the challenges that AVs face on roads. Much of the discussion surrounding the interactions between AVs and people focuses on the people using the car; we have not really discussed how AVs will interact with people who are not sitting in the car. Within the first three days of AVs starting service in Tallinn, there had been no “major incidents” but quite a few “near misses.” There is only one intersection where the buses interact with other traffic, but at that intersection the buses have broken multiple laws.

They have ignored a pedestrian walk sign, a “speeding police car’s emergency lights,” and a red-light at the intersection. These are all common occurrences that the AVs should be equipped to respond to, and yet they cannot. If AVs ignore pedestrian walk signals, how can we be sure they will stop for pedestrians who crossing the street in crosswalks? How can we be sure they will stop for pedestrians crossing the street unexpectedly (i.e., jaywalking)? AVs will not be widely accepted until they can appropriately react to unexpected but common occurrences like people crossing the street outside of crosswalks.

The good news for AVs is that due to their slow speeds, they are not nearly as dangerous to pedestrians as human driven vehicles. As long as AVs continue to operate below 20mph, the likelihood of them killing a pedestrian is only 5% and there’s a 20% chance that the person they hit would walk away with no major injuries. Human driven vehicles might be more aware of pedestrians, but they are also much more likely to drive at speeds higher than 20mph, no matter what the speed limit is. (One reason for this is the design speed is often slightly higher than the posted speed, making it easy for drivers to speed without noticing.) Getting hit by a car is not inherently dangerous (e.g., a car going 5mph isn’t going to do much damage) – it is only dangerous when the car is driving fast enough to cause damage.

Some think that the need for AVs to always stop when a pedestrian walks in front of them will limit the consumer appeal of AVs. A professor at UC Santa Cruz thinks that the need for AVs to be “risk-averse” will ultimately lead to pedestrians to “act with impunity” and dominate the roads because they will be “secure in the knowledge that a car will yield” once they step into its path. The professor, Adam Millard-Ball, is quoted as saying “From the point of view of a passenger in an automated car, it would be like driving down a street filled with unaccompanied five-year-old children.”

In conclusion: we think driving in a world of AVs will be amazing, but it might actually feel like a 5 year old has taken the wheel.

Many of the examples of self-driving mini-buses seem to have a few things in common:

  • They have an exclusive right-of-way. They might be driving on public roads, but they aren’t necessarily dealing with other cars or pedestrians. Right now it seems like Helsinki is the exception to this.
  • They don’t go very fast. Tallinn’s buses can go 30-40mph, but they operate at 12mph. Some mini-buses go only 5mph.
  • They are not yet fully relied on. Even in Helsinki where the law does not require a driver, the buses have operators to ensure they don’t hit pedestrians.

Helsinki’s buses seem to be the most advanced right now:

Paris, where the AVs have an exclusive right-of-way (for now):

Some other countries where self-driving minibuses are being tested: Japan, Greece, and Australia.


3 thoughts on “Toddler take the wheel

  1. From a safety standpoint, it’s pretty clear that having vehicles slow down would make pedestrians better off. This would especially be the case for autonomous vehicles since presumably even the best technology on the road today cannot account for every possible scenario that pedestrians might cause. At the same time, I think severely restricting the speed of self-driving cars/buses could significantly detract from their value proposition.

    Part of the allure of AVs today is that they are novel, and in the long run the cost of sensors might drop below the cost to employ a human driver. In between, I think people will likely choose transportation options from a utilitarian view (“What is the fastest and most convenient way to commute?”). At 20 mph, AVs would be limited to a lower speed than human drivers which we currently place more trust in, and in the extreme case of 5 mph buses, people would barely save any time over walking. Even when autonomous travel costs less, many people might not mind paying a premium for a faster ride.

    Of course, the average driving speed in urban areas often turns out to be below the speed limit due to traffic and stops, but as you mention stop-and-go travel might not be eliminated with AVs. Definitely interesting thoughts to consider, and it seems there will be huge hurdles to overcome not only in AV behavior design but also in public education and acceptance.

  2. This post brings up some really interesting questions. The fact that these vehicles are malfunctioning but getting away with it due to incredibly low speeds is worrying. The speed seems to be a transitionary phase until the technology is tried and true. Autonomous vehicles will need to be able to recognize pedestrians, and make sure not to hit them, but I believe that in this new era of transportation, things will need to change. The idea of all pedestrians turning into ‘five year old children’ to take advantage of the cars technology is unfortunately something I believe will become a reality. I think that in order to make autonomous vehicles really be affective, the onus of safety must go back to the pedestrian. Right now, we trust the human in the car to not hit the pedestrian, but because the pedestrian knows that the human in the car is not perfect, he/she must be careful about where he/she walks. If the regulations do not change, pedestrians will know that these autonomous vehicles will never hit them, and ruin the efficiency gains that these vehicles should lead to. If pedestrians are not allowed to walk in certain conditions and are highly fined for doing so, it could manage pedestrians in a way so that they are not detrimental. If a pedestrian gets hit and they are not exactly following the rules, then the liability falls directly on the pedestrian. I know that this idea would come against a lot of backlash, but I believe it is exactly what is necessary to shape the future with autonomous vehicles.

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