What will self-driving cars mean for cyclists?

A cyclist passes a Google self-driving car at Mountain View, California, back in 2012. Image: Getty.

Last week, I joined thousands of other Brits in hopping on my bike to make the most of the uncharacteristically warm weather. But just as I was remembering all of the things I love about cycling, I was rudely reminded of one of its major problems.

It’s a scene that doesn’t need much setting because it happens far too often. I was pedaling down a typical London street, one lane of traffic moving in each direction. An engine revs behind me – an impatient driver looking to fill the two car-lengths between my bike and the vehicle in front. Overtaking will do no good here, and besides, there are cars coming in the opposite direction. It would be an unsafe maneuver.

The revving gets louder, and suddenly I feel the car whisk past my shoulder with millimetres to spare, squeezing between me and the oncoming traffic. It’s so close I’m destabilised and narrowly avoid a crash. All too aware of London cyclists’ bad reputation for shouting profanities at drivers, I keep my anger to myself. But an unexpected thought springs to mind: I can’t wait for self-driving cars.

My reaction was perhaps well-founded. In 2016, 102 cyclists were killed and a further 3,397 seriously injured on Britain’s roads. Whilst riding a bike remains safe by statistical standards – with only one death per 30m miles cycled on Britain’s roads, and the general health benefits far outweighing the relative risk – every cyclist has a story of a hairy experience.

Proponents of self-driving cars promise they will reduce that epidemic to close to nil. Through the combined functions of automatic braking, hazard detection, avoidance of driver fatigue and the elimination of blind spots, the technology does seem promising.

However a recent spate of deaths in the U.S. casts doubt on my rosy assumption that autonomous vehicles will solve cyclists’ problems once and for all. On the night of 18 March, an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a woman wheeling a bicycle across a road in Arizona. Five days later, a Tesla car on autopilot mode crashed in California, killing its driver.

It is clear that autonomy, in its current form, is far from perfect. Vehicles’ detection systems are developing fast but are still primitive, and in cases where cars offer partial autonomy in the form of steering assists and cruise control, the risk is that drivers can lose concentration. What’s more, when autonomous vehicles have to operate on the same roads as unpredictable road users – like cyclists and pedestrians – they face a far trickier job.


Though autonomous cars may be on Britain’s roads as early as 2019, it will be many years before every vehicle is automated. “The transition is going to be really messy,” Roger Geffen, the policy director of the advocacy group Cycling UK, tells me. “Before autonomous cars can really share the streets with pedestrians and cyclists, they’ve got to not just detect their presence but predict their movements. Cyclists negotiate space with drivers by a combination of eye contact and hand signals. How are driverless cars going to understand that?”

Until technologists can find an answer to that question, Geffen’s fear is that pedestrians and cyclists will be demonised for their unpredictability, possibly even facing the prospect of being banned from certain roads. And even if technologists could design an algorithm that can detect cyclists and pedestrians in every instance, autonomous vehicles still raise unanswered questions about cyclists’ place on the roads.

Looking to the future, there are two possible extremes. One is utopian: the lack of need for a driver will mean a small fleet of driverless cars working around the clock could replace the thousands of cars lying idle on our streets, freeing up space for cycle infrastructure and pavements.

But that scenario is not inevitable. “The nightmare future,” Geffen explains, “is one where the manufacturers are determined to recoup their investment by trying to make sure everybody’s got a self-driving car. We’ll end up with complete gridlock and the technology never getting to the point where it’s able to detect the presence of pedestrians and cyclists.”

Driverless cars offer great promises, and it seems fair to assume they will eventually lead to a reduction in road fatalities. But it would be foolish to expect that to come soon, and we may see an increase before numbers start to fall. It is likely cyclists and pedestrians will have to fight for their right to remain unpredictable, and possibly learn new behaviours to interact with self-driving vehicles.

One thing, however, is certain. The roads are going to change.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.